For years, I’ve heard about this little neighborhood Italian place in Grand Ledge. People swore by it, but I was never sufficiently tempted to make the drive to the other side of town. It takes a lot to impress me with pasta, since I tend to believe that I can make it just as good myself at home. Nevertheless, I welcomed the excuse to experience Cugino’s when we decided on this assignment, and the boyfriend and I headed to dinner on a recent Friday night.

I warned our waitress that we were going to order a lot of food and that I was going to ask her a lot of questions about the menu, which I made good on. She was wonderful, well versed in the menu items, and quick to give her input on what we were thinking about ordering. I thought about asking her to be my new best friend, but I was afraid that would be a little bit too forward.

We started with the mozzarella sticks as an appetizer. They were standard fare, and we were seriously hungry so we devoured them. He started with a cup of minestrone soup and I started with a salad, which I took a glance at and passed on to him. Plates of iceberg lettuce, shredded cheese, and croutons out of a box don’t thrill me at all. The minestrone was more appetizing — it was thick and hearty, chock full of beans and pasta, but it was a little bland. This was easily fixable, because — hallelujah! — there was salt and pepper on the table.

On the entres. The Pasta Roma consists of penne noodles and sliced Italian sausage in a spicy tomato sauce. The pasta was prepared perfectly al dente, a theme that held true through the entire meal. They weren’t kidding when they described the sausage and tomato sauce as spicy — I love a little heat in my food, but my man practically had steam coming out of his ears. The sauce is used sparingly, so there isn’t a lot to sop up with the thick, buttery breadstick. That was fine, because the breadstick was delicious and shouldn’t have to share the spotlight.

Next up was the Penne alla Vodka, described on the menu as penne with bacon, onions and garlic sauted in a cream sauce. Disappointingly (although my bikini is thankful), our dish was missing the bacon. The pasta, as previously mentioned, was beautifully prepared. The dish was good, but the sauce was a bit thin. The bacon would have done a lot to add a depth of flavor that was missing.

Our third and final entre was the BBQ Chicken Pizza. Personally, I don’t think that chicken has any business being a pizza topping. In the name of research I sampled a piece, and while it was serviceable, chicken pizza truly turns me off. My boyfriend would have liked to see home-style shredded chicken as opposed to the chunks of artificial-looking stuff, but he gobbled it up regardless. He had nothing but good things to say about the tang of the barbeque sauce and thinly sliced red onions.

We both agreed that we had a tasty, reasonably priced, solidly B meal at Cugino’s. If you’re in the mood for hearty, heavy, juicy Italian food in a dimly lit, garlic-scented setting, you should definitely make the trek to Grand Ledge.

There was a motley crew at Cugino’s that night: Couples on dates, gussied-up groups of girlfriends who were celebrating something special, families and townies. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the warm summer evening and loving what they were eating. Some people sat at the bar to have a cocktail and watch the Tigers, while others sat at a table for two and ate a meal meant for four. Apparently Cugino’s is more than just a solid Italian dining experience — it’s also the local social hub.

And if you’re going to be on that side of town anyway, you can hit up Horrocks Farm Market on the way back for my new favorite dessert: Monica’s Gourmet Cookies. I’m not exactly sure which addictive drug is baked into these little beauties, but I can’t control myself.

I think I need a bigger bikini.