Cafe Bella Roma: worth the wait

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

IT is a truth universally acknowledged that American people in possession of a good appetite must be in want of a cozy Italian restaurant in their neighborhood. Some areas have reached saturation level in this regard; others lack even a decent pizzeria.

So it took about two seconds for the trattoria-deprived community around Robertson south of Pico to get (aromatic) wind of Cafe Bella Roma S.P.Q.R., a small place owned by a friendly and committed Cal-Ital couple (he's the Ital; she's originally from Indiana). It opened in August with Robert Amico in the kitchen and his wife, Lisa Bartels, waiting on tables and otherwise handling the front of the tiny house. In spite of being hard to spot (a tree obscures the awning with its name), it was soon attracting regulars for Amico's deftly made pizzas, house-made pastas and a changing roster of appealing entrées.

By our third or fourth visit in late October, a waiter has been hired -- for the dinner rush, at least (this is the rare Italian cafe open for breakfast, too, but amusingly that service doesn't begin until 10 a.m.).

Although the waiter is engaging and professional, my husband is worried. "Can valet parking be far behind?" he says. Since in my family all major decisions are made over plates of spaghetti, we've seen a few seemingly under-the-radar Italian spots become (shudder) upscale eateries.

But Bella Roma has its quirks -- no liquor license yet (but you can bring your own), mostly outdoor seating on a tiny, crowded patio, paper place mats, a leisurely pace to the meal, soccer broadcasts on weekends -- so, for now, anyway, it's likely to stay somewhere to the proletariat side of fancy. Which couldn't make that couple who've just walked up from their house around the corner any happier.

A leisurely meal

IT'S no place for folks in a hurry, no matter what the meal, because although the menu's carefully thought out and service is attentive, certain shortcuts are simply not taken. Your breakfast frittata is incredibly tender and light because the eggs haven't been hurried; those hot, delicate batons of fried potatoes were cut to order.

Roman specialties such as bruschetta, suppli al telefono (fried risotto balls), spaghetti carbonara, bucatini all' amatriciana, fettucine alfredo (called alfredo originali here and made with butter, no cream) and various preparations alla romana are given pride of place on the menu and show off Amico's old country-cred.

But the cafe doesn't so much strive for authenticity as offer choices, unpretentiously acknowledging that most diners will eat American-style. So although pastas and risottos are listed as primi piatti, portions are entree-sized, and they're priced accordingly. If you want to order the special branzino, you'd best wait for another time to try the house-made gnocchi.

Soups or shared pizzas make terrific first courses here. In winter, there's a pleasantly full-bodied pasta e fagioli, and a stracciatella romana, bright with spinach in chicken stock. A judicious list of a half-dozen pizzas includes prettily restrained standards with thin, flavorful crusts such as a Margherita as well as more distinctive numbers such as a sprightly "four seasons" (quattro stagione) that makes the most of playing off salt-forward bits of prosciutto, olives, artichokes and capers against mozzarella. Or try the suppli al telefono -- fried risotto bolognese balls. They're hearty, but not too much so, nicely balanced in texture with crisp crusts and toothsome interiors of rice, sauce and a little cheese.

Special soups are delightfully seasonal -- recently, a savory pumpkin purée that was just delicious. These are great lunch choices, too, although it's hard to resist a just-right panino: on your choice of ciabatta, foccacia or pancarre (sandwich loaf) with those just-made, you-salt-'em fries. The spinach, zucchini, eggplant and portobello version is outstanding: a thick, bright-green layer of spinach pressed with smoky, unctuous eggplant and zucchini and roasty mushrooms between crisp-outside, soft-inside pieces of bread.

Among the pastas, tagliatelle, lasagna, cannelloni and gnocchi are made in-house. A special of black and white tagliatelle frutti di mare one night is a standout -- tender but full-bodied strands of tagliatelle, some colored with squid ink, served with clams, mussels, shrimp and scallops in an intense arrabiata sauce.

Football fan

ENTREES such as sautéed fillets of wild salmon, sole or tuna are satisfying plates -- fish nicely rare, sauces bright, sides of potato purée, spinach and grilled polenta deftly done -- and they're appealing for regulars with consistent under-$20 pricing.

Desserts are mostly from the outside and somewhat beside the point, but coffee and espresso drinks here are good -- again, throughout the day. In the morning, your cup of Americano comes with a tiny pitcher of hot milk; in the afternoon, a slice of the homey torta della nonna would be a wonderful accompaniment to a chat with a friend.

The acronym S.P.Q.R. in the restaurant's name refers to the ancient Latin phrase that is the motto of the city of Rome and is found not only on manhole covers but, as Bartels can often be heard explaining to customers, also emblazoned on soccer team regalia. In this context, it not only expresses the chef's claim to represent Roman food, but his passion as a sports fan -- a touch that signals just how approachable Cafe Bella Roma means to be.

Cafe Bella Roma S.P.Q.R.

Location: 1513 S. Robertson Blvd., L.A., (310) 277-7662;

Price: Breakfast dishes, $6 to $12; panini, $9; pizza, $7.50 to $10.50; pasta and risotto, $10 to $15; entrees, $14 to $24.

Best dishes: Tagliatelle frutti di mare; pizza Lisa; frittata Roma; stracciatella romana; spinach, zucchini and mushroom panino.

Details: Open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and coffee, from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Street parking. No alcohol. All major credit cards.

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