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GETAWAYS : Love, American Style : Romantics take a 3-mile voyage with gondoliers and a basket of food through the canals of Naples Island in Long Beach.

October 16, 1992|R. DANIEL FOSTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; R. Daniel Foster is a regular contributor to Valley Life

Picture this: You and your love snuggled tight in a gondola, your mate's fingers trailing in the water as you sing an aria from La Boheme.

Well, maybe you could just hum a few bars. Far removed from Venice, Italy, this gondola cruise is not likely to attract many opera purists. Called the Gondola Getaway, the one-hour voyage takes romantics on a three-mile trek through canals surrounding Naples Island at Belmont Shore in Long Beach.

The passage comes with a basket laden with bread, cheese, salami, a bucket of ice and wine glasses. Bring your own beverage. You might want to go light on the snacks if you visit the Ragazzi restaurant afterward. Opened by the gondola company in 1990 as a complement to the cruise, the spot offers oceanfront Italian dining about one mile west of the gondola launch point. Ragazzi, which translates as "gathering of friends," offers seating indoors or out.

"In Venice, we noticed that as gondoliers got older, they would buy restaurants along the canal for their retirement years," said Davide Black, who launched his boating enterprise with business partner Michaelangelo O'Toole in 1982 after visiting Venice. "We're following the tradition." (Long Beach locals, aware of the owners' Irish ancestry, call them David and Mike.)

The idea is not new to the area. When Naples Island was first developed around the turn of the century, 14 gondolas were imported from Italy to show prospective buyers around properties. Black and O'Toole searched for the old boats without success.

Instead, they launched a Pakistan fishing boat and lifeguard rowboat modified to look like gondolas, but powered by trolling motors. The effect was a bit like putting tractor tires on the Spruce Goose. After visiting Italy to experience the real item, the pair commissioned a Seal Beach boat-builder to design a fleet of eight authentic Venetian gondolas in 1984, now rowed by 35 gondoliers.

For larger parties, the fleet can carry 52 people. Or choose from the Carolina boats, which seat up to 14, and the Puperino crafts, classic 32-foot-long, sleek gondolas that ride low in the water and carry just two.

Begin your cruise by walking down a wooden dock where a small building stands, flanked by Italian flags and tables spread with red-checkered tablecloths. If you spot the sign, "Over 800,000,000 Rowed," you're there.

The cruise first parallels a public beach, then veers left into one of three canals. Although the canals are fronted by houses, the surroundings are quiet--unless your gondolier has turned up Turandot on the boat's boom box.

You'll pass under several low bridges, some covered in mandeville vines. It's a tranquil setting, heightened as your gondolier, outfitted in red striped shirt and beribboned hat, calls "bona sera" to passing gondolas.

If you've torn off one too many hunks of bread piled with salami and cheese, you may want to skip dinner and try Ragazzi's desserts instead. Recommended: the raspberry cheesecake studded with chocolate bits and the flourless chocolate cake smothered in whipped cream.

It's not too early to make reservations for Valentine's Day. During any month, call for reservations several weeks in advance.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Gondola Getaway, 5437 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.

Cost: $50 first two passengers, $10 each additional person.

Call: (310) 433-9595.

What: Ragazzi Ristorante, 4020 Olympic Plaza, Long Beach.

Hours: 5-10 p.m. weekdays, till 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Mondays.

Price: Meals range from $9 to $25.

Getting there: San Diego Freeway south to the Long Beach Freeway south to Shoreline Drive. Follow Shoreline Drive to Ocean Boulevard, turn right and travel six miles to 54th Place. Located 100 yards past 54th, on your left. Park on Ocean Boulevard, walk around the building and out onto the pier.

Call: (310) 438-3773.

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