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Saturday, December 24, 2005 | Little Italy, known for restaurants is also home to two decidedly different Italian markets, each with a restaurant attached. Shoppers flock to Mona Lisa Italian Delicatessen for all manner of Italian staples. One morning I thought I was in Italy – I heard more Italian spoken than English. Like any good Italian market/deli, the smell of cheese and cured meats gently permeates the air and the space is open, with items easy to spot. Here you’ll find everything from fresh cheeses and vegetables and cured deli meats to pastas dried and fresh, large bags of dried beans, condiments, coffees and many hard-to-find Italian foods. Service is helpful and friendly. Mona Lisa Italian Delicatessen, 2601 India St. at Hawthorn, Little Italy, (619) 239-5367.

Down the street at Cash & Carry Italian Grocers, the space is long and narrow, as it is the entrance to Filippi’s Pizza Grotto. The place has a New York kind of feel and attitude – cramped quarters with the deli on the right and canned goods stacked on the left. You’ll jostle diners waiting in line for a table as you buy a wedge of Parmesan. Though it carries many of the same foods as Mona Lisa’s, the intoxicating smells of pizzas, rich spaghetti sauces and cheeses enhance the shopping experience. Cash & Carry Italian Grocers, 1747 India St., Little Italy, (619) 232-5094.

A pal swears by the Bailey’s Irish Cream and the White Chocolate Raspberry is the best selling flavor for the 25-year-old company. I tried slices of two of their more than 20 stock flavors: Merv Griffin, chocolate through and through with a chocolate cookie crust and chocolate chips and Laura’s Recipe, the basic cheesecake that I prefer. Though most of the cakes are sold to restaurants in Hawaii, New Mexico and other states, they are available for takeout as 10, 8 or 6 inch whole cakes, or by the half, quarter or slice. Prices range from $3.25 for slices to $39 for 10-inch cakes that serve 16 to 20. Flavors include such concoctions as Java Chocolate Chunk, Turtle Pecan, Key Lime, Carmel Pecan, Coconut Amaretto to name just a few. The Incredible Cheesecake Company, 3161 Adams Ave., Normal Heights, (619) 563-9722.

Beer aficionados take note: A funky liquor store (under the same ownership for 25 years) with an old-fashioned neon sign on El Cajon Boulevard at 30th Street advertises a selection of 450 beers. Now I don’t know exactly how manager Jim counts those beers, but Pacific Liquors does have quite a collection. Along with the usual well-known favorites, you’ll find beers from Poland, Russia, Italy, Belgium and points closer such as Mendocino, San Diego and Portland. They also carry a huge selection of hard liquor and mid-priced wines. Should you be thirsty late on a weekend – or need ice – they’re open until 2 a.m.and 1 a.m. weeknights. Pacific Liquors, 2931 El Cajon Blvd., North Park, (619) 282-2392.

Tidbits: Ring in the New Year at the Beauty Bar opening Dec. 31. As noted in my Nov. 4 column, Beauty Bar is a 50’s style beauty salon and full bar with dancing. For $10 you can get a manicure and a cocktail throughout the evening. Beauty Bar, 4746 El Cajon Blvd., at Euclid, Talmadge, 619-516-4746,

More sweet things … look for newcomer Heaven Sent Desserts to open in February on the corner of 30th and University.

Pet Peeve: From a reader: Servers who can’t remember who gets what. When food arrives, yes, serve women first, but be sure it’s the correct dish. No need for musical plates around the table.

Marcie Rothman loves good food – no matter where it’s cooked – at home, a hole in the wall or a white tablecloth restaurant. Known as The $5 Chef on radio, television and in her two cookbooks, Marcie travels far and near with an eye on what’s current in food. You can find her at www.5dollarchef.com.

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