The instruction, "close your eyes and you're eating in Italy," brings out the Walter Mitty in me. I imagine eating caponata in Palermo, polenta in the Tuscan hills, risotto milanese with a count. Ethnic cuisines--when carefully prepared-- should transport us. The new Caffe Roma in Santa Monica is not bad for a gastronomic carpet ride.

I've always liked the Beverly Hills branch. It's filled with Europeans and positively hums. The new cafe ("Pizzeria Romana-Piano Bar") is, similarly, set off from the street in the courtyard of the pink stucco Paseo del Mar. It's airy, filled with pretty tiled tables and light bentwood chairs, terra-cotta walls and comfortable banquettes. In addition to such Italian cafe fixtures as framed tourist photos of favorite sites in Rome, a large and witty oil painting of peasants picking oranges graces one wall of the spacious room. The surprising complements the quotidian on the menu as well.

On our first visit we began with the Grand Buffet del Giorno, which, as the name implies, changes every day. You march up to the bar, survey the feast-laden counter and choose four dishes as an appetizer (at $4.50) or six items ($7) as an entree. One of the owners saw us deliberating over the selections and invited us to try them all. (He did not have any idea we were reviewing the restaurant. On each visit the staff has been particularly gracious.)

Well! To hear our cries of pleasure, you might have thought Anna Magnani and Marcello Mastroianni were at the next table doing the dinner scene from "Tom Jones." Really fresh mussels in a light tomato sauce! Smokey, buttery proscuitto, exquisitely cut! Marinated mushrooms in a distinctive vinaigrette! Elegant shaved fennel with a shower of good olive oil! Lovely, tender squid in a peppery tomato gravy! Perfectly cooked octopus with tiny, but not rubbery shrimp! Heavenly caponata with each of the flavors intact! Even a pianist playing "Arrivaderci Roma" with panache! While they don't yet have a liquor license, there is a modest wine list and even two different kinds of aqua minerale.

The rest of the meal lived up to its pleasurable beginning. The pasta of the day, linguine with clams, was precisely al dente, the clams miraculously fresh and garlicky. The menu lists 11 pizzas. We chose pizza alla checca (mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic with olive oil) and found the hot, thin crust chewy and the fresh basil and garlic divine. Too bad the tomatoes weren't really red and ripe. On another visit the pizza al carciofini (mushrooms, mozzarella, parmigiano, basil and artichokes) was light and hot and crusty, though the mushrooms were the hothouse variety and the artichoke hearts obviously tinned.

Desserts led us straight to paradiso. The almond torte was dense and tasted as fresh as homemade marzipan. The pineapple-coconut gelato, served in a quarter of a fresh pineapple, was rich and creamy. The espresso is, naturally, the Real Stuff, and the management, bless its heart, even has camomile tea. I couldn't wait to return.

All meals, unlike roads, do not lead to Rome. The Grand Buffet somehow missed the mark a second time. The insalata caprese (interleaved slices of tomato, mozzarella with fresh basil) was bland, the rice salad and the mussels with tomato sauce were insufficiently seasoned, the stuffed zucchini was pasty and merely a bore. On the other hand, roasted red and green pepper salad was pungent with a touch of chili and olive oils. A light julienned cucumber salad was lemony and refreshing. And the waiter kept coming with rosettas, hot rolls shaped like roses.

Two of the specialties of the house, pollo al limone and filetto di pesce alla pizzaiola (fresh white fish on light tomato sauce and oregano) were indeed of the freshest quality, yet their sauces were absolutely nondescript. If there is a problem with Caffe Roma, which for lighter snacks is absolutely first-rate, you find it in the entrees. The use of herbs and seasonings is erratic, and often the sauces neither enhance nor complement the dishes they are served with.

The calzone, on the other hand, is something to write post cards home about. We tried calzone al forno No. 2, a pizza dough stuffed with a frothy mix of very fresh ricotta, mozzarella, spinach, mushrooms and black olives. The combination of deep, chewy crust combined with the intense spinach and cheese was even better than the mouthwatering New York street festival varieties.

Once again the desserts could make a grown Roman cry. The chocolate almond torte, moist, crumbly, and chocolatey enough for any addict, is classically beautiful to look at. My dining companion, a European aficionado of creme caramel, is a person not given to hyperbole. After the first spoonful and the pronouncement "The absolute best I've had, anywhere," all conversation ceased. I ordered one too. It was the richest, densest, most concentrated creme caramel I've ever had. A truly transportive experience. Close your eyes at Caffe Roma and there is a pretty good chance you'll find yourself eating in Italy.

Caffe Roma, 1541 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. 395-9101. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to midnight. All major credit cards accepted. Validated parking in the building. Beer and wine served. Dinner for 2, $25-$55 (food only).

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