Cheap Eats

Inexpensive meals with a little romance.

Fowl play : Jerked magret duck with guava-lime confit at A.
What's so terrible about a cheap date? you ask. Isn't it the thought that counts? Well, yes, but flattering lighting and ambient music can't hurt, either. You'd be surprised how some places manage to conjure romantic atmosphere on the skimpiest of shoestring budgets -- it's all about scale (small) and service (friendly but not intrusive, casual but not distracted). It's a subtle art, one that the teeny panini-and-wine bar 'ino has mastered with its supremely sensuous finger food: bruschetta and panini lavished with creamy cheeses, pungent pestos, or a drizzle of truffle oil ($2 to $7).

But 'ino's not the only place that wins big by thinking small: When a joint has only five tables, like A, three is definitely a crowd. A's French-Caribbean-inspired menu is as tiny as its unfussy premises, but the mellow vibe and the nonstop reggae and ska invite lingering long after the last bite of curried lamb pie with coconut crème fraîche (one of only six dinner dishes, all in the $7-to-$10 range). Like A, Snack, the sweet little SoHo Greek café, is BYOB (though Snack has applied for a liquor license). At night, the rough-hewn storefront takes on a candlelit luster and a significantly expanded menu, with substantial entrées like braised lamb stifado and vegetarian moussaka ($10.95 to $12.95).

If you're a sucker for nostalgia and a connoisseur of Sicilian pizza, take someone special to L&B Spumoni Gardens, a 62-year-old landmark in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where locals and pizza pilgrims line up for the signature square pie (a light, crunchy crust, adorned with a bare minimum of mozzarella cheese beneath a layer of tangy tomato sauce) and a paper cup of the house spumoni. American Graffiti meets GoodFellas.

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· 'INO, 21 Bedford St., 212-989-5769
· A, 947 Columbus Ave., near 106th St., 212-531-1643
· SNACK, 105 Thompson St., 212-925-1040
· L&B SPUMONI GARDENS, 2725 86th St., Brooklyn, 718-449-1230