It’s 8:30 Wednesday night, and Caiola’s is hopping. Adults of all ages populate a front dining room divided by a low wall. Rustic wood furnishings, earthy colors, mismatched antique ceiling fixtures and work by local artists give the space a relaxed atmosphere. Walk straight through the jarringly bright kitchen and you arrive at a similarly cozy milieu in the back, a handful of tables set in nooks against the wall.

Caiola’s, named for co-owner Lisa Vaccaro’s grandmother, is a place to chat with your neighbor across the aisle; slide up to the eight-seat bar for a cocktail; or grab a bite of Spanish-, Italian- or Sicilian-influenced cuisine in a roomy booth after a long work day.

But don’t be fooled. People here care about what’s on their plate — a lot. They come for cuisine lovingly crafted under the eye of chef and co-owner Abby Harmon, formerly executive chef at the well-respected Portland seafood restaurant Street and Co.

Many of her dishes are innovative, but they don’t intimidate. Located in a funky free-standing building in a neighborhood of elegant historic homes and apartment houses in Portland’s West End, Caiola’s is all about feeling at home.

Flavors? Those at Caiola’s are delightfully deep and robust. The first spoonful of a creamy mushroom soup with truffle oil ($5.95) shouts its namesake. Three whole grilled sardines, each about 8 inches long and placed in a triangle over perciatelli pasta, come served with a tomato-based sauce strongly infused with fennel. The pan-seared fish are crusty-skinned and moist, and easy to break into and eat around the bones.

The addition of orange, currants and toasted pine nuts make for a delicious medley. This intricate and hearty appetizer ($9.95) could easily be dinner for one.

Caesar salad with fried spicy oysters ($11.95) is another appetizer ample enough to be a main dish. The six oysters surrounding the romaine bear a thick, breaded crust, and taste peppery. Unfortunately, on this night, more attention could have been paid to their leafy vehicle; the overly dressed greens lack the sharp and lemony character of a good Caesar.

Zuppa di pesce ($21.95) arrives as ocean sculpture in a bowl, its seafood artfully mounded over broth, aioli served in a clamshell atop, crostini pointing to the sky. Again, the golden brown lobster broth hiding underneath is intense with flavor.

A tangy marinara sauce with sweet red pepper, onion and cream envelops the house- made cannelloni ($16.95), the ricotta-and-spinach-filled pasta thin and tender like a crepe. If I had just lost a job or a lover, this would be my comfort food of choice. Eat leftovers at home in your pajamas for breakfast, and you’ll smile the rest of the day.

A surprising exception to the restaurant’s flavor-rich dishes is the mahi mahi entree ($22.95). Listed as grilled with citrus, the thick cut is tender but lacking in citrus flavor. I can’t tell what fruit is primary, although blood-orange slices circle the plate.

We ask, but we don’t hear back from our server what the accompanying sauteed greens, almost a puree, are. The hearts of palm fries, served with aioli on the side, are exactly as they sound — the vegetable breaded and crisped in a deep fryer. Not my thing. My friend feels the items on this plate don’t “integrate.” I have to agree.

Another so-so dish is the venison empanada appetizer ($6.95), despite the addition of a warm and sweet currant/apple chutney. The meat is dry, the peas are a dull green, and the deep-fried envelope too heavy for my taste.

Desserts transport us back to flavor heaven. A rich and caramelly butterscotch pudding ($7.95) comes with a deliciously crisp pine-nut croccante (often described as a praline, although this is more cookie than candy). Homemade lemon and olive oil ice cream refreshes ($5.95).

All these items, plus a chewy baguette with chive and shallot butter and three different wines by the glass, put us in a relaxed and comfy zone. We linger for two hours, toasty and content on a cold March night.

Like the surroundings, service at Caiola’s is casual. It’s attentive enough so that we don’t feel at sea at any time, despite full tables nearby. After a 10-minute wait, though, we remind our server to bring a second glass of wine we ordered, and the bill has a few problems. Service-wise, there is little to fault, but it’s not top-notch, either.

The good news is that our food comes after an expected length of time, and a second server doesn’t blink an eyelash when we ask for a soup container for that zuppa di pesce that’s too wonderful to waste.

Caiola’s has a notable Sunday brunch and back terrace dining in the warm weather. For dinner, this neighborhood haunt delivers big on portions, creativity, flavor and vibe. Ah me, I feel a bout of West Ender envy coming on.

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in national and regional publications.