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RESTAURANT REVIEW : The Food's Secondary at Ciao Bella

July 30, 1993|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ruth Orkin's famous photograph, "American Woman in Italy" shows a lovely young woman walking down a narrow Italian street past a group of male idlers. The men, you can tell from their expressions, are whistling and cat-calling. The woman holds her head high--she's trying to ignore the men. Still, she's on the verge of tears.

The photograph is charming and disturbing, a classic example of routine sexual harassment. Today, larger than life and clumsily painted in black and white, the image forms the mural on the western wall of Ciao Bella Ristorante on Melrose Avenue. One wonders, why this picture? Did the owner think the men were saying, "Ciao, Bella?"

The popular indoor-outdoor cafe resembles nothing so much as the large cafe-feeding halls of Southern Europe. Wooden tables are lined in long rows with no air space between them. This means you are elbow-to-elbow, ear-to-ear with your neighbors. Eavesdropping is involuntary. Your neighbors' conversation is as intelligible as your own, providing, that is, you're poly-lingual. I heard Italian at Ciao Bella, also Swedish, Russian, German and a Slavic tongue I couldn't identify.

Set in the heart of the oldest hip stretch of Melrose, Ciao Bella has location largely in its favor. People stream in; Ciao Bella's an eddy in the river of Melrose foot traffic: groups of studly men, older men with lovely young women, girlfriends out shopping, older sisters taking their younger siblings out for pizza.

Ciao Bella is not a restaurant for the shy, the retiring, or the great conversationalists of the world. Here, as in many of L.A.'s boisterous Italian cucinas, it's see-and-be-seen and not talk-and-be-heard. We're first seated next to an avid smoker. We move to find ourselves under a speaker blaring old Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, Jim Morrison. Our conversation is henceforth conducted at a holler.

Another night, we sit at the row of tables out on the sidewalk. Our neighbor is a middle-aged Italian man in a fake-Hermes shirt and a ponytail. Nothing that passes through his line of vision goes unremarked. A man walks by in a beige linen suit. "Whaddya thinka beige linen, Joe?" he asks his silent, older companion. Our meal arrives. "Whaddya thinka calamari , Joe?" our neighbor bellows. "Whaddya thinka a salad like that one?"

Had our neighbor addressed his questions to us, we might have answered him: "Frankly, we don't think all that much of this food."

Ciao Bella serves very large portions of affordable Italian cooking that can be divided into two main categories: food one wants to eat and food that one would rather not. The fried calamari , bland as it is, is fine. The antipasti plate with tasteless prosciutto and brackish mozzarella is a mistake.

Perhaps the best single item is a baby green salad dressed with hazelnut vinegar and discs of fried goat cheese. The Ciao Bella salad, greens with thin sheets of grilled tuna, is passable. But pass up the Caesar salad made gummy with too much bland grated cheese.

I like Ciao Bella's angel hair pasta with fresh tomatoes; a single serving could feed a family of four. Ravioli filled with spinach, Swiss chard and basil is borderline--blame the watery butter sauce.

A friend orders pasta sauced with cream, prosciutto and peas because she's heard it's a recipe that Thomas Jefferson brought back from Italy. The Ciao Bella version, made with a long thin noodle and topped with broiled bread crumbs, reminds me not of the great statesman but of the generic noodle casseroles in school cafeterias.

One plate of food contains nothing I'd eat: The marinated chicken breast is way too sweet, the rosemary potatoes wallow in grease and the sauteed spinach tastes like stewed rope.

Pizzas are large with decent, bubbly crusts. The pizza puttanesca, however, is mined with large potent chunks of raw garlic. Panini is made with slippery wedges of pizza bread making Ciao Bella's version, with well-oiled grilled vegetables, a trick to eat.

Exhausted after each visit--hollering over the din and eating food that's passable at best--we ignore the pretty fruit tarts in the dessert case and gladly rejoin the river of pedestrians out on the avenue.

* Ciao Bella Ristorante, 7422 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 658-5879 or 658-5072. Lunch and dinner seven days. Beer and wine. Major credit cards. Valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $24 to $48.

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