Tucked behind a shop on Canon Drive, off Le Grand Passage, the courtyard that links a fancy hair salon with an extravagantly stocked cigar store, at Caffe Roma you could expect to find Fabio, the long-haired international model featured on the covers of paperback bodice-rippers, holding court. Our esteemed governor used to hang there too (before he went into politics), as well as a whole slew of minor celebrities and well-heeled folks playing hooky, whiling the afternoon away talking sports and women and cars with their pizza and pasta.
Who knows why certain people gravitate to certain restaurants? On the same street or just around the corner there are glitzier Italian restaurants, some with arguably better food. It must have been the proximity to that cigar store back in the day when every junior agent and stockbroker was packing Monte Cristos, ever ready to light up whenever and wherever the chance presented itself, that sealed Caffe Roma's role.
Times have changed, I needn't point out, and after more than 25 years, Caffe Roma was looking a little tired. In Hollywood, though, everybody deserves the chance for a comeback. That opportunity came for Caffe Roma when Ago's Agostino Sciandri bought the place in 2006. He recently closed it for eight months to give the venerable spot a makeover, adding a bar at the front with Murano chandeliers, patterned wallpaper and comfy chairs, a few sidewalk tables out front and sofas for lounging on the cobblestoned side patio.
It would have been great if Sciandri had freshened up the menu as well. But with a built-in clientele who had been coming to the cafe for years, he obviously decided to play it very safe.
Still, he now has a lot of seats to fill. The outdoor dining area with umbrellas and heat lamps alone can seat up to 70. Passersby on Canon can now look right into the bar, so there's no hiding out if your wife, for example, strolls by.
The dining room in back isn't nearly as attractive. It's nothing special really, marred by a deli case that gives off a glaring white light. You can just barely see into the kitchen through a slot in the wall. But on the occasions I was there, I saw no Sciandri, even though I'd been assured he's cooking at Caffe Roma himself.
His menu here is not particularly inspiring: It's very much in the usual Los Angeles Italian vein, i.e. composed of all-too-familiar dishes, nothing too regional or too rustic. That's no surprise. Sciandri is one of the Italian chefs who came to L.A. in the mid-‘80s and introduced the city to a more accurate style of Italian cooking than had been the case before. But that was back in the days when if a chef needed fresh basil, he had to grow it himself, and when many of the ingredients we take for granted today — extra virgin olive oil, aged Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, salted anchovies, aceto balsamico from Modena — just weren't available here.
That's no longer the case, yet these menus live on as if they were sacred texts. Sciandri already has Ago, Sortino and Toscanova serving the same kind of food. Why buy Caffe Roma, if not to do something different? And while I'm at it, how funny is it to be cooking northern Italian food at a place called Roma?
Some of it is quite respectable. The salumi plate is generous, and the products — prosciutto, mortadella, salami, etc. — are good. It's enough for two to share over a bottle of wine and some bread. And at $16, this, like most of the dishes, is well priced for Beverly Hills.
A raw artichoke and frisee salad dressed in lemon and olive oil is heaped tall with shards of shaved Parmigiano leaning against its sides, a signature Sciandri dish and one of his best.
Flat packets of ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta and napped in butter is classic and correct. But a southern-style rigatoni with eggplant and coarsely grated dry ricotta, with its sharp, salty taste, packs more punch. With soft nuggets of eggplant in loose tomato sauce, it tastes like deconstructed eggplant Parmigiano (which is also on the menu and quite decent if you like a lot of gooey cheese and tomato sauce).
If you're about to pass out from shopping fatigue, order a pizza, which comes quickly. They're fine, actually, but there's not much distinctive about them. Among the best are the rapini with cheese and coins of fine-textured sausage or the quattro stagioni — "four seasons," topped with a little of this and that, including ham, artichokes, olives and capers.
Keep an eye out for lamb chops as a special. They're skillfully cooked and very flavorful. The veal Milanese topped with arugula is all right too.
Other items can easily disappoint. Pollo al mattone doesn't look as if it's really been flattened and cooked under a brick, and at any rate it's been cooked to the point of dryness. The big golden cubes of potato that come with it, a fixture at all Sciandri restaurants, are tempting though. But a linguini special made with mixed seafood is dull, with none of the vibrancy a pasta dish like that should have.
Desserts are a pass unless you're the type who never passes up a chocolate soufflé, though here it's really more like a molten chocolate cake. Ricotta cheesecake topped with raspberries is just OK. But torta della nonna is terrible, with a floury custard.
The good news is that prices aren't excessive for the neighborhood. It's a big restaurant, so you can usually get in, and if you want to feel out the place, come for happy hour from 3 to 8 p.m., when many items are just $5, settle in at one of the sofas outside and order a bottle of Masi Valpolicella, one of the best values on the generally expensive wine list.
While Caffe Roma may not be the best Italian restaurant on the block, it's comfortable and serviceable. I'd just hoped this time Sciandri would surprise us with something more.
Rating: half a star
Location: 350 N. Cañon Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 274-7834; http://www.cafferomabeverlyhills.com
Prices: Small plates and antipasti, $10 to $12; larger salads, $16; pizzas, $14; pasta, $16 to $20; main courses, $20 to $32; desserts, $10. Corkage fee, $20.
Details: Open from 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays to Fridays and from 1 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Full bar. Valet parking, $6, dinner only. At lunch, park in back and they'll validate your ticket: You'll pay $5.