FIRST IMPRESSIONS: I had very few expectations of Al Fresco (524 S. Occidental Blvd., 213-382-8003); in fact everybody I mentioned it to kept saying, "There's nothing in that part of town."
Even the first view was not heartening; it sits among an anonymous group of storefronts in one of those horrid little miniplazas that seem to be popping up everywhere. What a surprise, then, to open the door and discover an enchanting little place whose cool, fading frescoes give it the air of a crumbling ruin in the middle of Rome. The refrigerated deli case that sits among the 20 seats in this tiny restaurant adds the perfect air of insouciance and saves the place from seeming precious.
There is certainly nothing precious about the prices. A friend and I ate most of the dishes on the menu and still had trouble spending $30. There are nice salads to begin with, stuffed mushrooms, and pizzas on good chewy dough (individual, unadorned ones start at $2.95).
The three dinner dishes--cheese-filled lasagna and manicotti or meat-filled cannelloni--all cost around $5. And that includes soup or salad and homemade bread that looks like cake and tastes like heaven. It doesn't have a liquor license, but it does have excellent creme caramel.