At the latest London import, Cecconi's, an expat Brit orders a cocktail, leans back against the luxurious cushions strewn along the terrace banquette and opens the morning's Times -- that would be the Times of London. Hostesses have a tony British accent, some of the servers too. A gentleman in a bespoke suit with tie and matching hankie tucked into his breast pocket glides past our table at lunch.
Most of the crowd, though, consists of ladies who lunch, several generations of them, many bestowed with major bling, major work and itty-bitty appetites, chattering over pretty salads and dainty servings of sea bass carpaccio. Can't get into the Ivy a few blocks south on Robertson Boulevard? Reserve at Cecconi's: The food from former All' Angelo and Dolce chef Mirko Paderno is much better.
Judging from the photo of the original London restaurant on Cecconi's website, the West Hollywood sibling is something of a knockoff in terms of decor. That would include the hideous turquoise vinyl bar stools on spool bases and the table lamps that glow like moons madly flattering everything in sight. The giant bar fills up much of the indoor space of what was once Morton's, now unrecognizable beneath an overlay of marble and frills.
The big news is the generous outdoor terrace hidden from the street by a tall and very green hedge. If you can't get a table there, angle for one set up half inside the French doors, half out, the better to peruse the scene.
Cecconi's biggest surprise is reserved for the prices, which are remarkably moderate. At lunch, there's even a two-course prix-fixe menu for $15, which changes every day. Recently, it was strozzapreti (priest-strangler pasta) with a vibrant green pesto and a salad embellished with thick slices of rosy roast beef and the house dressing. The greens were a standard mesclun mix but fresh and good. My lunch companions ordered a la carte -- sweet diver scallops seared in a cast-iron pan, and moist steelhead trout with grilled eggplant. Plus, valet parking is free at breakfast and lunch, so you're already ahead.
The service, though, could use some seasoning. Some of the servers are too pushy, and sometimes service is confused, with plates going to the wrong person or even the wrong table. Meanwhile, chef Paderno and his kitchen, which boasts not one but two wood-burning ovens, is turning out credible thin-crusted pizzas, fine pasta dishes and simple, fresh main courses.
Call for a dinner reservation, and you'll get the usual runaround -- 6 p.m. or 10. Fine, I'll take the 10 p.m. reservation, but when I show up a little early, tables are already emptying out and it feels a little dead except for the birthday party in the semi-private room. Yet it seems to take the staff, moving like molasses, 20 minutes to set up the table. At a Chinese restaurant, the table would be cleared and set up in the time it took you to walk from the maitre d's desk to the table, even if it was just 10 steps away. And yet in a place that's supposed to be all about scene, the crowd isn't very glamorous and the food, surprisingly, is much better than it needs to be. Go figure.
Next to us, three guys playing with their cellphones strike poses so elaborately relaxed their chairs threaten to topple over backward. On the other side, a well-muscled gentleman in black T-shirt and black jeans works hard to impress the two women with him. Buddy, I want to say, you might do better if you stopped calling women "girls." You need to get out more. Other tables are occupied by couples who look and act as if they're on a date for a matchmaking show.
Never mind. Here comes our pizza from the wood-burning oven. The thin, crisp crust is blanketed in melted fontina cheese and supposedly black truffles, but it's hard to tell since the kitchen has amped up the flavor with truffle oil to give the pie what many people identify now as the taste and smell of truffles.
Not for me, this pizza, though it's not bad. I prefer the simpler and more class- ic one with mozzarella di bufala and tomato sauce. As for other starters, what L.A. Italian doesn't have fried calamari on its menu? Probably not a one. And Cecconi's is no exception.
In this case, the calamari are big ones, napkin ring-size and very tender. The dough is pale, though, instead of crisp and golden. Either Paderno isn't going for crispy, or the oil wasn't hot enough. They come, though, with an excellent aioli, silky and delicious.
The star starter is salmon tartare prepared table-side with olive oil and lemon. The server will ask if you want it a little spicy. Say yes, and he'll add some finely minced red jalapenos. The salmon is perky and fresh, cut into half-inch dice, the whole thing bright and refreshing. Cobb salad gets a B, though, because the dressing is all at the bottom and the bacon is wadded up in places. However, I very much like the idea that you can get a half-portion of salads and pastas.
And the other starter I'd highly recommend is vitello tonnato. This is the real thing, thin rosy slices of roast veal napped in a velvety sauce of pureed canned tuna, olive oil and anchovies. Another terrific summer appetizer. Vegetarians might want to go with the eggplant Parmigiano served in its own little cast iron casserole. It's maybe a touch too tomatoey, but good, and could even stand in for a main course if you like.
Pastas are a good bet. Wide ribbon noodles -- pappardelle -- in a ragu with house-made sausage is classic. That pesto at lunch is another summery dish. And there's also a dish of tiny ravioli with a broccoli rabe and ricotta stuffing tossed with baby clams.
Main courses run to the predictable, including the ubiquitous branzino or sea bass, only this one issues from the wood-burning oven. It's probably best to ask for it on the rare side as mine was overcooked.
Steaks tend to be more pink than medium rare, so again, ask for your beef rarer than you really want it. The quality of the beef doesn't stand out in terms of flavor. But the veal chop served with fresh pea shoots and a little lemon is really excellent.
As for wine, the default position seems to be a glass of wine, so be sure to specify that you're ordering a bottle, not a glass. The list isn't brilliant by any means, but you can find at least a handful of interesting Italian wines at fairly reasonable prices.
For dessert, you've got two options. One is a molten chocolate cake, one of the better ones I've had. The dark chocolate flows like lava, and it's served with espresso ice cream with a big wallop of caffeine. The other is a blood orange cake soaked in orange syrup, perfect with a cup of espresso to cut its sweetness.
Lately, so few restaurants even attempt lunch, not to mention breakfast, that Cecconi's fills a real need in the neighborhood. And if you just want a new place to meet a friend for a drink or a light supper, Cecconi's should be on your short list.
With the possibility of half-portions, thin-crusted pizza and moderate prices, I'm betting this user-friendly Italian will have legs.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
8764 Melrose Ave. (at Robertson), West Hollywood, (310) 432-2000; www.cecconiswesthollywood.
Chic London import in the old Morton's space with gracious outdoor terrace, an active bar scene and moderately priced Italian cooking from Mirko Paderno (Dolce, All' Angelo). You'd think the scene would trump the food, but here, it's the reverse.
Sometimes very good, sometimes disorganized.
Dinner appetizers and salads, $9 to $18; pizza, $15 to $18; pasta and risotto, $10 to $22; from the charcoal grill or wood oven, $16 to $38; sides, $6; desserts, $9. Breakfast and lunch items less expensive.
Octopus with lemon and green olives; vitello tonnato; wood oven-baked veal meatballs; salmon tartare; pappardelle with house-made sausage, Romanesco broccoli ravioli with clams; veal chop with pea shoots and lemon; whole roast chicken; blood orange cake.
Not brilliant but a handful of good Italians at fairly reasonable prices. Corkage fee, $25.
One on the outside terrace.
Open 7 a.m. to midnight Monday to Wednesday, 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday to Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking, complimentary at breakfast and lunch, $8 at 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.