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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Elegant Simplicity at Caffe Delfini

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Caffe Delfini is a little Italian joint for northern Santa Monica’s Rustic Canyon crowd. I had thought that reservations on a Monday night would be superfluous--many restaurants don’t even bother to open on such a traditionally slow night--but I called ahead anyway.

When my friend and I arrived, the dining room was empty except for two other couples. The waiter greeted us, then studied a seating chart. We were offered a choice of two tiny, free-floating tables, one within elbow-knocking range of one of the couples, the other right in front of the door. It was a chilly night. We chose the couple. They frowned as we encamped in their space but, after an uncomfortable pause, resumed their conversation, of which we could hear every word, every catch of breath, whether we wanted to or not.

“I got rid of Sammy’s number today,” the woman said.

“What’s that?” said her companion.

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“Sammy Davis Jr. I finally took his number out of my address book. It was hard.”

The only way to create privacy was to have our own conversation. And since the room did in fact fill up, not-so-hot tables and all, we no doubt provided others with a few choice earfuls.

Caffe Delfini is in an older building that once held a branch of the Big Yellow House. Even a heavy coat of white paint can’t thoroughly disguise the way the lumber and acoustic ceiling tiles have warped in the sea air. There are cheery watercolors (for sale), prop fans, ficus plants for homeyness, plus votive candles on the tables and clean white tablecloths. An elegant simplicity prevails. The counter that separates the dining room from the kitchen holds shelves of wine, a kind of wine library.

If you sit facing the front windows, you will note a stream of Jags, Benzes and BMWs arriving at the valet stand. Many customers are greeted warmly, with familiarity: Clearly, they’re regulars. The room is pretty when it’s full, with all the candlelight, all the people clustered closely around tables in the small room, a few people standing and drinking red wine waiting for someone, anyone to leave.

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The service is attentive and unobtrusive. The food’s pretty good, too. Good enough, so that if you live in the neighborhood, you might far prefer Caffe Delfini to driving to downtown Santa Monica for a similar meal. The menu, a piece of folded pink paper with clumsy hand printing, is small: a few salads, soup, a handful each of pastas and entrees, a choice of three desserts. Absolutely nothing new or novel is found here, but the ingredients are fresh and of good quality, and the kitchen has certain nice touches. Portions are extremely generous.

I liked the brashness of a sliced tomato, onion and anchovy salad, although this is not the time of the year to expect a truly excellent tomato. Better, in this season, to stick with cool-weather leafy things--the arugula salads, one with bresaola (air-dried beef) and lemon, and the other with radicchio, balsamic vinegar and big flakes of Parmesan.

Pasta e fagioli , thick and flavorful with beans, is served piping hot.

The kitchen’s measured, light touch is at its best with pasta. Linguine Portofino is essentially a checca (chopped tomatoes and basil) with sweet, fresh shrimp. And what pleasure there is in the simple rigatoni Gorgonzola--good chewy pasta tubes in a swarm of cream sauce with just enough Gorgonzola melted in to add a little kick. Subtler are the spinach ravioli, a special, which have a fluffy ricotta and spinach filling and a light, velvety tomato sauce.

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For entrees, Caffe Delfini offers three veal dishes, one chicken and a varying number of fish dishes that change daily. All are served with a heap of basil-flecked chopped tomatoes and fabulous crusty roasted potatoes. Scaloppine ai funghi consists of tender, tasty, thin paillards of veal absolutely smothering a cream, wine and mushroom mixture. And I was very happy with a lovely slab of Mexican sea bass sauteed with admirable restraint in a bit of oil and wine.

The tiramisu is well-laced with espresso and topped with a thick coat of grated chocolate. In comparison, the ricotta cheesecake seems bland, but has its own virtues--a compelling whiff of citrus, a delicate toasty cheese flavor where the cake has browned.

* Caffe Delfini, 147 W. Channel Road, Santa Monica, (310) 459-8823. Open for dinner nightly. Beer and wine. Major credit cards accepted. Valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $36 - $70.


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