A SLIGHT odor of smoke pervades the dining room of the building at Fifth Avenue and 114th Street here in Manhattan - but it's not from burned food. At East Harlem's ``Fire Factory,'' one of the busiest firehouses in the country, the smoke is the residue of the firefighters' work, brought ``home'' on equipment and clothing.
The smoky smell disappears at lunch- and dinner-time, however, banished by the aroma of delicious meals being prepared by the hungry firefighters of Engine Company 58 and Ladder Company 26.
These men and women never know when the next alarm will sound. In fact, about 60 percent of all firehouse meals are interrupted by alarms, according to the New York City Fire Department.
``You learn to eat fast. You never know when you'll be running out the door,'' says John Sineno, a firefighter and firehouse chef since 1962.
Mr. Sineno is also the author of ``The Firefighter's Cookbook,'' a compilation of favorite firehouse recipes published by Random House in 1986.
On the New York Times best seller list for six weeks, the cookbook has sold more than 150,000 copies.
It intersperses reminiscences of firehouse life with hearty recipes for such dishes as ``A Polish Farewell to Lent'' (kielbasa and sauerkraut), the New York City fire commissioner's fettuccine, and Sineno's own cheese-cake.
Rich in anecdotes as well as recipes, it offers glimpses of firehouse life that support firefighter Mike Penchina's statement, ``In a firehouse, you become a family.''
The Fire Factory's meals always include meat, vegetables, a salad, and dessert.
``There's plenty of food, and it's wholesome,'' says Sineno. Roast beef, turkey, and ham are favorites, since they virtually cook themselves in the oven while the firefighters rush in and out on calls.
Since many firefighters like to hunt, menus have featured fish, duck, pheasant, deer, and once, caribou - bagged on a hunting trip in Canada. The caribou was one of the few unsuccessful meals of recent memory.
``It was gamey,'' says firefighter John Murphy.
Leftovers disappear quickly, not surprising among people whose work sometimes requires them to dash up many flights of stairs carrying heavy hoses and other equipment.
At the Fire Factory, not every firefighter chooses to cook, but the members of Engine Company 58 and Ladder Company 26 alternate grocery shopping duties.
Each unit shops as a group, because its members must be together when a call for help comes in. When their walkie-talkies transmit an alarm, they abandon their shopping carts on the spot and dart to the fire engines parked outside.
``The supermarkets understand,'' Sineno says. ``When we come back we'll often find the groceries have been bagged and are waiting for us.''
The firefighters are permitted to shop only in the area they serve. Since the Fire Factory is in Spanish Harlem, ``we can get anything Spanish - sugar cane, plantains, mangoes, spices, banana leaves,'' says Mr. Penchina.
``Because the area used to be an Italian stronghold, we also can get anything Italian. There are great bakeries, and we can buy imported olive oil, homemade cheese, and real Italian parsley.''
More than 2,600 firemen and women eat daily in New York's 220 firehouses. They themselves pay for their meals, which range in cost from $3 to $8 apiece.
On special occasions - an anniversary of service with the fire department, a happy occasion at home - one firefighter may pick up the tab for the whole crew.
``If your colleagues don't like your cooking, they let you know about it,'' Sineno says.
``You've got to have a thick skin, because you get kidded a lot. But I've found that good food is good for morale. A lot centers around that guy who's cooking.''
Sineno, who has been preparing meals for his colleagues ``since Day 1'' on the job, gained his love of the kitchen from the shopping and cooking he did for his mother when he was a boy.
A gift Penchina once gave to his wife says a great deal about the quality of the Fire Factory's cuisine.
``One night I went home and told her, `Get dressed, we're going out for dinner,''' he says. ``Then I brought her to the firehouse.''
Fire Factory cooks recently served the following lunch:
Tony Tricarico's Shrimp Marinara 1 large can tomato paste 8 large cans crushed tomatoes Parsley, basil, salt, oregano, bay leaves, garlic, onions, to taste 5 pounds large shrimps, shelled, cleaned, deveined 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese 4-5 pounds linguine, cooked to package directions
Saut'e garlic and onions in oil in pan. Add tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, parsley, basil, salt and pepper, oregano, and bay leaves. Simmer 1 to 2 hours.
Add shrimps to sauce. Cover and cook 8 to 10 minutes over low flame.
Serve sauce over cooked linguine. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese.
Jim Beuerman's Garlic Bread 1 pound butter 3 whole garlic cloves, peeled, crushed Oregano and basil, to taste 4 loaves Italian bread 1 pound grated mozzarella, (optional)
Melt butter in saucepan. Add garlic, oregano, and basil. Simmer about 30 minutes. The longer it simmers, the stronger the garlic taste will be.
Spoon mixture onto loaves of Italian bread cut in half lengthwise.
Put under broiler to brown. Cut bread vertically into slices. (Optional: Add grated mozzarella before putting bread under broiler.)
John Sineno's Pumpkin Cheesecake Filling: 4 8-ounce packages cream cheese 1 16-ounce can pumpkin 1 cup sugar 6 eggs 1 tablespoon cinnamon 1 teaspoon nutmeg 1 tablespoon vanilla extract or flavor
Crust: 1 1/2 cups crushed graham crackers 1 stick margarine
Melt 1 stick margarine; add graham cracker crumbs and mix.
Line bottom and sides of a 9-by-3-1/4-inch cheesecake pan or springform pan with crumb mixture.
Mix together cream cheese, pumpkin, sugar, eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. Pour into crust-lined pan.
Place cheesecake pan in large roasting pan. Add water halfway up sides of cheesecake pan. Bake in a 450-degree F. oven 1 hour or until firm. Let cool.
Serves 12 to 16.