YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

RESTAURANT REVIEW : One of the Best of Breed : Benvenuto Caffe is an intimate, rustic Italian eatery, though Mr. Hyde sometimes shows his face at lunchtime.

January 21, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

Sometimes, when daydreaming, I imagine that long after mankind disappears, even after the last species of insect has ceased to exist, there will still be an Italian restaurant out there somewhere. And in it, an android will be pushing the tiramisu for dessert.

Italian restaurants are to our industry what hydrogen is to the universe, the most prevalent of all substances. Everywhere you turn these days, or so it seems, a new one is opening, an old one closing. We know this food well and we rarely tire of eating it: pizzas, pastas, simply grilled meats. Menus are planned to be within a sharply defined eating curve. Only a few daring, cutting-edge chefs surprise you with dishes like bottarga (fish roe) or lumache (snails). Tiramisu, once an exotic confection, has become as commonplace as the lemon peel on your espresso saucer.

Enter Benvenuto Caffe, genus late 20th-Century Italian cafe. This small storefront is located on the spot that once housed the positively tiny (and perfectly fine) Bellablue, but that doesn't prevent it from being a proper venue. It's a rustic-looking joint with a handsome, earth-toned tile floor, softly sponged walls, a marble bar, chairs crafted from wicker and wood, flickering candlelight and the odd exposed duct peering out at you from above. The new owners have enlarged the seating area from when it was Bellablue but at the same time have made this space more intimate. You might even call it romantic.

Thank a well-traveled chef by the name of Mustafa Saad for the restaurant's good cooking. Some of you may remember Saad from a nice little neighborhood place called Farfalle on Hillhurst Avenue in Los Feliz. Saad cooks with skill and occasional touches of personality, adding chicken sausage to a staid lasagna recipe, for instance. This place is a virtual extension of his original--and equally fine--Benvenuto Caffe in West Hollywood. The public just hasn't caught on to it yet.

Jekyll and Hyde play bit parts here, depending on whether you come for lunch or dinner. It's more of Mr. Hyde at lunch, when the service is spottier and you can never be sure who is cooking. Evenings, things run more smoothly. Pizza crusts are cracker crisp, pastas are chewy, the pace is more leisurely. It's also a lot prettier in this restaurant by candlelight.


As good as many of these dishes are, I enjoyed nothing so much as the delicious house flat bread, a thin, crisp bread brushed with herbs and baked in a wood-fired pizza oven. You'll get a small plateful of extra virgin olive oil into which garlic has been crushed, and it is a task to stop the dipping and eating. One evening two of us ate three baskets of this bread and who knows how much oil.

The best antipasti are probably a workmanlike, razor-thin carpaccio piled up in a mound on a pile of fresh greens, and grilled eggplant with roasted peppers, but I wouldn't call appetizers this restaurant's strong suit. It's a better idea to head right into these wonderful pizzas, with names like Calabrese, Adriatico, rustica. Rustica is a joy--sliced tomato, mozzarella, tomato sauce, fresh basil and more garlic--but I wouldn't quibble if Calabrese--goat cheese and black olives, basically--was substituted for it. Adriatico has shrimp, pesto and lots of mozzarella cheese.

Pastas are house-made in a kitchen that really understands the concept of al dente. There's a great, creamy spaghetti carbonara , a giant tangle of perfect noodles in a white ceramic bowl. I'll ask the chef to use a bit more pancetta and a bit less cream next time, but it's already heaven. Tagliolini rosso al pollo is an oddball beet pasta with chicken, broccoli, sun-dried tomato, garlic and oil. The fine, fat gnocchi, an acid test for any Italian kitchen, pass with flying colors. These little potato dumplings practically melt in your mouth.


There's also a compelling reason for ordering the grills here: They are quite reasonably priced. Where else around here can you get a full-fledged veal chop, on the bone, for only $14, the top price on Benvenuto's menu? Pollo arrosto al forno is chicken baked in the wood oven with rosemary, served with terrific roasted potatoes and a medley of vegetables. You'll find fresh fish daily, too. I had a great piece of salmon in a Play-Doh green pesto sauce, daunting at first, but tasty to the last.

Have the flourless chocolate torte or a rich, crusted apple tart for dessert and a frothy cappuccino. Their tiramisu is a thin layer of chocolate-dusted mascarpone atop some nicely soaked ladyfingers, and I did sneak in a bite or two. Psst--don't tell anybody, OK?

Where and When

What: Benvenuto Caffe.

Location: 12321 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

Suggested dishes: pizza rustica, $7.75; gnocchi al pesto, $9; spaghetti alla carbonara , $8.75; pollo arrosto al forno , $12.50.

Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner daily, 5:30-11 p.m. Valet parking. Beer and wine only.

Price: Dinner for two, $28-$45. All major credit cards.

Call: (818) 980-0789.

Los Angeles Times Articles