One thing about Pinetta’s European Restaurant: It will never be mistaken for a chain restaurant. That can be taken as a compliment or criticism. It is meant to be both.

Generally speaking, a hole-in-the-wall place that provides a romantic mood and an original, eclectic menu is seldom found under a familiar sign at the bottom of an Interstate exit ramp. Not every midsized city can even claim to have one.

Then again, there is something to be said for the chains. They typically have standards of comfort, cleanliness and service their patrons can rely on, and the market-tested recipes are usually acceptable even when unmemorable.

Pinetta’s definitely leaves an impression - several, in fact. Based on our recent visits, we understand why it appears to have a loyal following, and why it’s not for everybody.

Tucked between Cottonwood Books and Bella Bella, Pinetta’s is easily bypassed by those not paying close attention, and those who find it walk in the front door to find no staff assigned to greet and seat them.

We thought this an anomaly on our first foray, but after the second experience having to walk through the dining area to get someone to tell us where, if anywhere, we could sit, we decided this was not a bug but a feature. The attitude seems to be that if you want to eat there, you should be willing to make an effort to do so. It mattered little at lunch, when empty tables abounded. At dinner, it was more frustrating, but we got our name on the list and waited for 40 minutes while a table at the front sat unoccupied. We were told it was kept for parties larger than our group of four. Or the group of four that came in 10 minutes later. Or the quartet that followed them.

Once seated, however, we found the wait staff friendly on both visits, if a tad stretched thin.

From the lunch menu we tried the eggplant parmigiana ($8.95), which arrived in a tiny iron skillet. The waiter spooned the hot-as-molten-lava eggplant/red sauce onto a bed of spaghetti and left. After letting it cool, we found a flavorful, sweet tomato-based red sauce over lightly cooked slices of eggplant. The sauce was a tad too sweet and the whole thing was a bit too heavily peppered, perhaps to offset the eggplant’s potential for blandness. A little more garlic might have done the trick equally well without the eye-watering spiciness. There was plenty of melted cheese in this dish also, and it was very chewy and good. The portion size was large and filling for lunch. If we ordered it again, we’d ask the kitchen to go light on the pepper.

The shish kabob ($9.25) featured four marinated beef chunks skewered along with bell pepper and onion and grilled, and served with a green salad and fried potato wedges. The meat, cooked medium rare, was quite tender and flavorful, and it mixed well with the peppers and onions. We wouldn’t have complained if there was a little more meat, but this was a sufficiently filling lunch.

We started our evening meal with panzerotti ($7), one of seven appetizers on the menu. Three small pastries - essentially miniature calzones - came to the table filled with ham, red peppers and a marinara sauce, with another dark, tangy sauce on the side. (Hard to be more specific, because lighting is at a premium in Pinetta’s at night.) In any case, we all liked it.

Our guests sampled two ravioli dishes, the spinach ravioli ($11.95) and one of the specials, seafood ravioli ($19.95). The spinach ravioli came with a choice of Alfredo, pesto or red sauce, and the pesto sauce gave a slight garlic-and-basil zestiness that was a nice complement to the spinach filling. The seafood ravioli was cooked in a delicate cream sauce that surprised us with its mildness; a lot of restaurants are tempted to hit the pepper shaker a bit hard on items like this.

The Tuscan pork tenderloin ($14.95) is one of the most interesting dishes we’ve ordered. The pork is sliced thin and seasoned, our waitress informed us, with orange juice, liqueur and brown sugar. This mixture of tart and sweet worked delightfully, embellishing the natural flavor of the meat without overpowering it.

Another one of the specials was the tuna steak ($18) with teriyaki sauce. The tuna, seared rare as we requested, was robustly salted and peppered, perhaps a bit too robustly, as only a hint of the teriyaki sauce seemed evident. This dish was served with mixed vegetables and a mixture of rice and pine nuts, all of which we liked.

On its dessert list, Pinetta’s features both tiramisu and chocolate tiramisu (both $6.50). Neither version is our favorite; both had such a light texture that they could have been mistaken for a mousse, with very little of the ladyfingers that can give this Italian dessert a little more body. The chocolate version added only a lightly chocolaty touch to the traditional version.

On a busy Saturday night, Pinetta’s was alive with conversation, and people seemed happy to hang around even though it was a bit stuffy. The restaurant lacks central air conditioning, and the window units were not keeping up with the day’s heat. But the atmosphere seemed to work.

The difference in atmosphere from dinner to lunch is, ahem, night and day, and it does not work in Pinetta’s favor. The sunlight streaming through the windows by the front door does more than make the ambience less romantic. It also reveals layers of dust that cover the steins, wine bottles and other knick-knacks that decorate the walls. This may or may not reflect on the state of the kitchen - which is far more important - but it makes one wonder. This place is in serious need of cleaning.