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NIGHT SHIFT : Villa Nova Keeps Alive the Traditions of a Piano Bar

March 04, 1993|ROSE APODACA | Rose Apodaca is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition. and

The spread of karaoke machines has almost wiped out the piano bar, as parades of amateur singers, glassy-eyed at technology, have traded in live musicians for recorded tracks.

But at the Villa Nova restaurant in Newport Beach, the piano bar tradition lives on, seven days a week. A snow-white Yamaha, with 88 keys and no electrical cords, takes center stage. Unlike some who frequent karaoke spots, most who get up to sing at the Villa can; and those who are slightly off key at least don't cause too much pain.

Hard-core piano bar fans say this Italian joint is at its best Sunday through Wednesday evenings, when resident pianist Richard Fauno tickles the ivories, as he has for the past 12 years.

Fauno looks too young to have played the Villa for so long. But he's perfectly cast for the role: jet-black hair neatly slicked black, a big gold cross hanging from his neck and a sparkling diamond pinky ring. Between songs, he lights up and cracks corny jokes. ("How long you been playin'?" asked one newcomer. "About 40 minutes" came the not unexpected reply.)

The lounge act is not so tinged with Vegasisms that it obscures Fauno's talent or turns the scene into an SCTV skit. Still, a steady stream of phrases such as "the most beautiful women in Newport are here" and "he's the greatest" (in reference to Fauno and anyone singing) remind that this is a piano bar.

Performers who pop by frequently do so after shows at the Performing Arts Center and South Coast Repertory. The place is an ideal night stop for cast members because of the light entertainment served by Fauno and because the kitchen is open until 1:30 a.m. Among the big names who have stopped by after their appearances at the center: Rosemary Clooney, Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber and his ex-wife, Sarah Brightman.

Fauno caters to this thespian audience with a repertoire of Broadway tunes, some opera and--for the lovesick in the audience--plenty of sappy, retro pop. Expect to hear everything from a galloping "Ghost Riders in the Sky" to selections from the "Marriage of Figaro," all performed in overly dramatic style by the regulars.

Those who join Fauno in the spotlight (and they do so nonstop) encourage applause from the audience, which readily complies. (Ah, the power of holding a mike.)

The bar area is narrow but cozy; the half-oval piano bar itself seats only about eight or nine on stools. The bar shares the restaurant's nautical-themed interior (the place does, after all, overlook Newport Bay). There are glossy wood ceilings, wood tables and wood everything else to give the effect of being inside a yacht. Completing the scene is the red Naugahyde tuck-and-roll booth seating.

If you choose not to dine formally in the restaurant, there's a very Italian bar menu that includes pastas ($9.25 to $11.75), salads ($3.95 to $5.95), soups (2.50 to $4.95) and appetizers ($4.75 to $9.75).

Liquor selections include just about everything; the wine list ranges from a $3.50-per-glass variety to a bottle of 1961 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild that sells for $1,000. Domestic beers are $3, imports $3.50 and well drinks $3.75.

The regulars drawn to Villa Nova tend to hail from old Newport's upper class, so the conversation overheard around the piano bar includes reminiscences about a vintage ditty being sung, comparisons of first and second divorces and boasts about golf swings. Italian, German and French can also occasionally be heard, a fitting touch at this seaside stop.

It's a mixed crowd, but don't expect many--if any--college-aged patrons. Most have been around long enough to buy that Jag on their own; and it's valeted, of course, as are all cars here.

Still, this is a great destination for a date, whether you're into Frank Sinatra or David Lynch. If you want to get to know one another, the music is not too loud; if you're too nervous, there's plenty of diversion just people-watching.

PIANO BAR AT THE VILLA NOVA

3131 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach.

(714) 642-7880.

Daily, 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Richard Fauno plays Sunday through Wednesday.

No cover.

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