Where life is dolce

Times Staff Writer

TATTOO and piercing artists, newsstands and edgy bars, Musso & Frank and the American Cinematheque all inhabit the same stretch of Hollywood Boulevard. And right in its midst, a new restaurant called Bella has appeared at the corner of Las Palmas and Hollywood Boulevard. As it happens, it's right next door to Rokbar, one of the sexiest lounges in town right now. On nights when something's happening there, it can be a mob scene outside as valets sprint up, open doors, jump into the driver's seat and gun off into the night.

With all the clubs and restaurants that have opened recently on the Cahuenga corridor and Hollywood Boulevard, and against all odds, Hollywood is making its comeback as a playground for hipsters.

Bella isn't immune to the frenzy. Because it's on the corner, you can see up and down Hollywood Boulevard and the circus passing by made up of tourists and hustlers, the lonely and the desperate, hipsters and suburban wannabes. It's all one crazy, delirious mix.

Bella draws the dedicated cool crowd like a magnet, too, but on this side of the divide, the crowd is just a bit older and more sophisticated -- it's like an annex to trendy Hollywood designed for grown-ups.

Instead of a velvet rope, there's a little podium for the maitre d' right out front on the sidewalk, where some of Bella's guests are taking a smoking break, or waiting for friends. With our bona fide reservation, we're whisked inside, to one of the cozy, curved leather booths that line the windows along Hollywood Boulevard. Wine list, please. And a Manhattan -- hold the cherry -- for our faithful driver and bon vivant. Put together by Leslie Gibson, it's a fine little Italian list with some unexpected and moderately priced choices, especially in whites.

A dozen or so wines by the glass are listed on the board above the bar, next to a flat-screen television playing a pristine print of "La Dolce Vita." Anita Ekberg, playing an American movie star, tosses her blond mane this way then that, basking in the attention of Marcello Mastroianni and company. The flashbulbs pop. Rome glitters.


Southern style

BELLA'S full name is Bella Cucina Italiana, and the kitchen, under chef David Moreno, concentrates on the southern Italian cooking that was pretty much all Americans knew of Italian cuisine until the craze for northern Italian came along in the wake of Armani, Missoni and Versace.

Dominick's in West Hollywood brought back New York-style southern Italian food, retooling in 2004 such dishes as spaghetti and meatballs or braciole for a young Hollywood crowd to whom they seemed both familiar and exotic. And now Gaucho Grill founder Adolfo Suaya (who is involved in a slew of trendy restaurants including the Lodge and the new Memphis) and his partner the Dolce Group (Dolce, Geisha House) have turned a primo corner space on Hollywood Boulevard into this slick retro-Italian.

Although he hired Dodd Mitchell as designer on several of his other projects, Suaya decided to play that role himself at Bella. It's more welcoming and certainly warmer in feeling than those other, more grandiose projects. He has hung black and white photos of '50s and '60s Italian movie stars high on the walls to set the tone. Stunning Murano glass chandeliers overhead look like giant licorice confections in black and white. Waitresses, though, are condemned to wear black chiffon outfits trimmed in white lace that would have made even Anna Magnani look silly. It's obviously some sly designer's take on an Italian peasant dress. Not.

Starters include, of course, fried calamari; at Bella, natch, it comes with a pretty good spicy marinara sauce. It's perfect to share, just enough to take the edge off your appetite. If you order prosciutto here, it's excellent quality, cut just thin enough to savor its wonderful sweet taste. Spare yourself the caprese salad, though: No matter what anybody tells you, tomatoes aren't in season right now and won't be for months. Opt instead for insalata bella, a lighter version of the old chef's salad, garnished with matchsticks of salami, mozzarella and avocado.

And if you really want to get in the southern Italian mode, go for the melanzane al forno, slices of eggplant and mozzarella layered with a loose, fresh tomato sauce.

I look up to see the famous scene of Anita Ekberg wading in the fountain of Trevi, looking every bit the goddess she is, while Mastroianni struggles to keep up. He's deep in la dolce vita and it's exhausting.

Meanwhile, we're fortifying ourselves for the Hollywood night with spaghetti and meatballs and penne arrabiata. The spaghetti has improved since my first visit -- it's not as overcooked -- but those meatballs could still use something to ramp up the flavor. Penne, though, are filling and good and the arrabiata ("angry") sauce packs a small jolt of heat. Linguine with clams is another standby that's decent here without tipping the balance to fabulous.

And that's the way it goes. I could see myself stopping in for a plate of ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta. The pasta is a bit thick, true, but I like the comforting taste of the filling and the sauce, which is basically an Alfredo, clinging to each of the ravioli. I just wish when the waiter offers Parmesan cheese, he meant grating a hunk of the real thing over my plate. The cheese here comes already grated.

You can get an old-fashioned linguine with clams, too, the white kind, made with olive oil and a splash of white wine. But the menu also proposes some more contemporary concoctions, like the farfalle tossed with grilled chicken breast, broccoli and sun-dried tomatoes that's more fake Italian than anything else. However, I do very much like the linguine with shrimp and grilled zucchini in a marinara sauce.


Drinking up the scenery

AS the evening gets later, more and more patrons filter in, standing at the bar, if need be, table-hopping and chatting up the bartender or the hostess. There's definitely a clique at Bella whose members all know each other. And then there are the people who've heard or read about this place, and come to see what and whom they can see.

Four very polite young Japanese women, who look as if they're barely two days past drinking age, come in and sit quietly at one of the high tables across from the bar. Sipping their drinks very slowly, they survey the scene: the manager in her pencil-thin black leather skirt, the scene-makers in sneakers, loose shirts and spiky gelled hair with their very dressed up babes on their arms, all asparkle.

The affable bartender keeps the cocktails coming, pouring glasses of Prosecco and shaking martinis for the crowd. A dapper guy leans back on his barstool, the better to get a look at his hair in the gilt-framed mirror.

I take a bite of my pounded, breaded veal. Last time I ordered it, it tasted like cardboard, but this time it's reasonably good. The kitchen is trying, and that's a good sign. Nobody's expecting three-star cooking at such a trendy spot. But the kitchen can turn out tagliata, grilled New York steak, sliced and presented on a bed of arugula with shaved Parmesan, with aplomb.

Bella's true appeal is the distinctly urban feeling created by the gritty cityscape outside its picture windows. The later it gets, the more boisterous the scene inside the restaurant, too, as groups of six or eight squeeze into a booth, giggling, ordering spaghetti and meatballs or some other pasta dish. For a bite before or after a film, Bella is ideally situated and because it stays open as late as midnight Fridays and Saturdays, you're happily rescued from the grim fast-food offerings on the Boulevard.

When all the stars are aligned, the food at Bella can be quite decent. Memorable, it is not, but the owners have pulled off something very difficult. Out of the blue they've created a restaurant with a sense of place. It's anything but just another chilly hipster joint that's here today, gone tomorrow. I have a hunch this one may just stay around.


Bella Cucina Italiana

Rating: *

Location: 1708 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood, (323) 468-8815; www.bellahollywood.com.

Ambience: Cozy retro-Italian with windows on Hollywood Boulevard streetscape. Black Murano glass chandeliers and waitresses in black chiffon outfits trimmed with white lace give the room an offbeat charm.

Service: Crisp, yet friendly.

Price: Antipasti, $8 to $13; salads and soups, $8 to $12; risotto and pasta, $12 to $18; main courses, $18 to $28; desserts, $6.

Best dishes: Plate of prosciutto, fried calamari with spicy tomato sauce, baked eggplant, insalata bella, penne arrabiata, ravioli with spinach and ricotta, pounded veal loin, tagliata.

Wine list: Mostly Italian list with some shrewd, moderately priced wines. Corkage, $25.

Best table: One of the booths near the bar.

Details: Open noon to 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, noon to midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Full bar. Valet parking during dinner.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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