RESTAURANT REVIEW : Bellablue's Antipasto Bar Runneth Over


Bellablue. Now, what kind of name is that?

Consider that it belongs to a clean-lined, white-walled new Italian trattoria on Ventura Boulevard, sparingly decorated with abstract paintings by a woman named Luisa Fiume. Bellablue is full of cozy wicker chairs and white-clothed tables, and the nautical-looking banquettes are upholstered in alternate stripes of blue and gray shades. Nautical, that's it. Bellablue must refer to the color of the ocean.

Psst. Here comes the owner, that outgoing gray-haired gentleman in the designer jacket. His name is Livio Betti. Let's ask him.

"Excuse me, Signor Betti, why did you call your new restaurant Bellablue?"

"Well," he tells us with a broad smile and a broad Italian accent, "my favorite color is blue and when I lease the building, I see the big blue awning outside and I think, ' Bella !' " But of course.

Now that we've solved that mystery, we can have lunch. Bellablue serves authentic Tuscan cuisine, deftly prepared by Gabriele Tani, onetime chef at Il Giardino in Beverly Hills.

That spread on the table in front of the bar is labeled antipasto, a woefully inadequate description from what I see. This is surely the biggest and most seductive Italian buffet anywhere in the San Fernando Valley--well over 20 dishes, all of which look inviting. Antipasto means "before the repast." Who could eat heavily after this?

Certainly not these three-piece suits piling their plates halfway to the ceiling with grilled zucchini and broccoli, wedges of frittata , fried cauliflower chunks, sea-green spears of chilled asparagus, casserole dishes such as eggplant parmigiana and delicate veal meatballs. The women seem to be favoring the mayo-heavy potato salads with veal or chicken, the baked mussels with wine sauce, the tuna in olive oil, the fagiolini (little white beans baked with fresh prawns) and insalata di mare with shrimp and calamari. Pretty heady stuff, eh?

It all tastes pretty wonderful, too, when eaten with the chewy, spongy Italian bread that goes so well with this food. Everyone eats too much and looks positively dazed afterward. I'm betting they are far from ready to go back to work after their espresso cups have been drained, and not from too much vino-- Bellablue's liquor license is still pending.

In the evening, things are considerably more sedate. Betti, the paterfamilias, still greets everyone with the same enthusiasm, but the noise level has been considerably toned down. Chef Tani's menu remains the same, minus the antipasto (which is offered only from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.), but everything takes more time to come out of the kitchen. It's a totally different room now.

Chef Tani is quite an evenhanded talent; no aspect of his cooking really outshines the others. He does a lovely carpaccio with arugula--a bit heavy on the capers, perhaps, but perfectly drizzled with olive oil and blanketed with paper-thin slices of tasty Parmesan cheese. Various crostini are prepared with equanimity: With the crostini alle acciughe , the toast rounds are topped with mozzarella and anchovies, reminiscent of the salty pizza you can buy in Italian bakeries in the Northeast. Crostini al prosciutto is like an Italian croque-monsieur , an elegant ham sandwich.

The chef is proud of his soups. I wouldn't be particularly proud of his cioppino alla Livornese , although I won't complain. It's like a thick tomato gravy with wine, really, that happens to be interspersed with mussels, shrimp and chunks of sea bass, plus one sublimely delicious garlic crouton to cut up and mix in with it. When the crouton runs out, so does the magic of this dish.

Zuppa di fagioli "Bellablue" is something else. It's like white bean puree from heaven, with another of those delicious croutons to eat it with. The waiter will ask you whether you're Italian when he serves it. Say yes and he'll drizzle some moss-green olive oil on top.

Naturally, there are good pastas, cooked al dente with flavorful sauces. The ravioli are truly delicious: ravioli vitello , with a minced veal filling, and ravioli di ricotta , with a soft cheese filling green from minced spinach. However, I won't vouch for the cappellini alla checca , even though the angel hair pasta is cooked to perfection. The checca topping of chopped tomato and basil is flat and uninteresting.

The rest of the menu is quite a success. There's an excellent galetto alla griglia , whole baby hen grilled charcoal black, and a fine Robespierre--cured slices of New York steak cut about twice as thick as the carpaccio are served in an olive oil and arugula marinade. The house specialty, osso buco con risotto , looks like one of the featured artist's abstract paintings: The veal shank, in the center, is bright red, surrounded by a moat of risotto, an even brighter yellow from its abundant saffron.

The desserts are first-rate. A soft, moist tiramisu. An eggy, yielding ricotta cheesecake. Wonderful torta di mele , a light sponge cake with an apple filling. They're all made by Chef Tani, and there's really only one thing to say about them: bella, bella.

Suggested dishes: antipasto, $9.50; zuppa di fagioli "Bellablue," $4.50; galetto alla griglia, $11; osso buco con risotto, $16.

Bellablue, 12321 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 508-6444. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, dinner 6 to 10:30 p.m. daily. No alcoholic beverages. Valet parking. American Express, MasterCard, Visa, Diner's Club and Carte Blanche accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30 to $50.

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