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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Sandwiches, Stylish Setting Are Best of Nona's Courtyard Cafe : Named for the great-grandmother of the Bella Maggiore Hotel's owner, the dining room is open only for lunch.

January 27, 1994|LEONARD REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the great hidden assets of the Bella Maggiore Hotel, the Ventura architectural treasure, has been an interior courtyard in which guests have taken breakfast and the occasional wedding couple has partied.

The space is copious, warm, European: red brick paving, high chalky walls covered with vines, tall trees shooting up to provide thick green canopy, a giant wall fountain whose gurgling provides just enough white noise to ensure private conversation. The setting is positively Verona--or is it Positano?

No matter. At last, this soul-restoring setting is open to the public in the form of Nona's Courtyard Cafe. It is easily among the most comfortable and casually stylish settings around.

The good news continues.

The food, with a few exceptions, is a worthy match: simple, yet with graceful flourish and always sparklingly fresh. (All meals discussed here were taken at lunch, it is worth noting, as Nona's is currently limited to breakfast and lunch. But a liquor license was hanging in the balance at press time, and along with it the plan to open for dinner as well.)

Start with Nona's minestrone soup ($2.75 for a generous cup), a startling example of the rustic, Tuscan original: firm beans and pasta, tomato, deeply flavored broth, herbaceous homemade croutons. The soup takes the Nona name in homage to the fact that it is prepared by the 100-year-old recipe of the late Nona, great-grandmother of the Bella Maggiore's owner. Minestrone is among the most shopworn of soups, yet this one will restore your faith; Nona, it is clear, knew what she was doing.

Pass on the Maggiore Cobb salad ($7.25), an acceptable but bland concoction of diced tomato, turkey, bacon, egg, avocado and bleu cheese over lettuce--there are far better things to choose from. If jumped-up salad is your bent, try the Bella half-and-half ($7.50), a delightful alfresco refresher featuring Caesar salad with blackened chicken breast and baby greens with grilled eggplant.

Sandwiches, however, are Nona's strong suit. The Bella Club ($6.95) features turkey breast (real, not pressed), bacon, sliced tomatoes, and leaf lettuce on Pullman whole-wheat bread. It is huge, delicious and made memorable by the inclusion of spicy mayonnaise.

Turkey Maggiore ($7.25) is another contender, this with turkey breast, pepper cheese, bacon, grilled red onion, tomatoes and black olives and sourdough. The audacious touch here? Fennel mayonnaise. Again, this not your average sandwich.

The grilled Italian sandwich ($6.95) combines grilled eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini and mozzarella on focaccia smeared with pesto. For all its vegetarian virtue, it is lush, decadent, among the best of its kind.

Daily specials include a pasta and fish entree, sometimes bolstered by a risotto choice. Here's where things are less reliable.

In recent visits, open-grilled mahi-mahi ($8.95) with a garlic/mayo compote was perfectly handled, richly flavored and beautifully presented. But fresh spinach linguine with red-pepper cream and seared shrimp and scallops ($8.95) was, for all the ingredients and beauty, plainly and strangely bland.

And Nona's latest, perhaps most ambitious culinary reach, is risotto, recently featured with Italian sausage, zucchini and tomato ($7.95). Sadly, it fails. The rice is plain and skinny, not arborio and fat. The rice is mushy, entirely without the firmness and creamy texture traditionally achieved by slow, constant stirring.

The result is a rice slush, albeit nicely flavored. The sausage? It is simply placed on top rather than incorporated into the risotto, a dish specifically designed to absorb, soften and combine flavors.

Nona's would do best to drop such imitations of an Italian classic, since the very strength of this delightful new restaurant is its authenticity in every other detail.

Jonathan Enabnit, Nona's creator and manager, has brought a great gem forward in Nona's Cafe. Recently he installed overhead heaters to blunt winter's chill, so the courtyard remains comfortable. This should help in the coming weeks as he opens for dinner.

One can only hope that the same high standards of the lunchtime menu are seen at night. If so, Nona's stands every chance of becoming a first-choice dining destination. We'll report back.

Details

* WHAT: Nona's Courtyard Cafe

* WHERE: Bella Maggiore Hotel, 67 S. California St., Ventura; 641-2783

* COST: Lunch for two, food only: $18 to $25.

* FYI: Breakfast from 8 to 10 a.m.; lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Major credit cards. Soon to open for dinner; call for details.

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