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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Bright Spot in Dining : Benvenuto's new menu includes pizza, panini , pastas and meats--served against an Op Art background.

March 10, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

STUDIO CITY — Benvenuto Caffe has a new chef, new owners, a new menu and a new color scheme. Practically the only thing that hasn't changed about this pint-sized place is the name.

Some of you are bound to remember it as Bellablue. A little over a year ago, Bellablue metamorphosed into Benvenuto Caffe, a casual eatery with rust-colored walls and an intelligent cafe menu.

The restaurant changed hands again last November, and the interior walls were repainted an odd mustard yellow color. That, a flurry of concept art and a lot of dark green tablecloths now make for a mildly shattering Op Art effect, especially since the lighting, provided by eccentric hanging fixtures, is on the harsh side. At least the restaurant's James Dean poster has survived the changeover (but don't ask me what the late teen idol has to do with Italian food).

I say rub your eyes and rush right over. The current incarnation of Benvenuto Caffe serves a menu of excellent pastas and entrees, while not abandoning cafe specialties such as pizza, panini and creative salads. Sicilian-born chef Gaetano Patrinosto has worked in northern Italy and Southern California for more than 20 years. Let it be said without hesitation that the man is a jewel.

His cracker-thin, elegantly topped pizzas rival those of West Hollywood's Alto Palato as the area's best, and the entrees are superb as well. (He makes tender, succulent osso buco, the most delicious example of these marrow-filled veal shanks I've tasted in years.)

Overlook the slightly disorganized service and you'll work up an appetite quickly. One little detail held over from the old Benvenuto is an addictive flat bread, cut into thin strips and piled up in a basket hot from the wood-fired oven. As under the previous owners, Benvenuto Caffe brings the bread out with a side dish of extra virgin olive oil and crushed garlic.

Two pizzas not to miss are Siracusana and a quirky quattro stagioni . The first one is topped with roasted peppers, grilled eggplant, fresh tomatoes, an understated mozzarella and a heady sprinkling of pecorino, the strong imported cheese that gives this pizza an edge.

Quattro stagioni has four toppings. Usually they're arranged on four well-defined quadrants of the pizza, but in this version everything is combined. The mix--artichokes, mushrooms, thin-sliced prosciutto and soft wedges of boiled egg--works beautifully.

Patrinosto's simple and pleasing panzanella Senese is a blend of ripe tomatoes, basil, red onions, bread and extra-virgin olive oil in a light balsamic vinegar dressing. Tortino di granchio Arlecchino is nothing less than well-proportioned crab cakes. These get their name (harlequin-style crab) because of the roasted red pepper and arugula accompaniment, which gives the proceedings more Op Art flair.

I'm not much on minestra del orto . It's too delicate for my taste--a light, salty broth dominated by minced zucchini. Zuppa di fagioli , though, is a wonderful take on the classic bean and pasta soup. It is just slightly over-salted, but the full flavors of the stock and beans come through with, er, flying colors.

*

Gnocchi Sorrentina also pass the test. These potato dumplings are tricky to prepare, and few restaurants get the dish right. Benvenuto does, blending the soft dumplings gently into a sauce of tomato, basil and whole milk mozzarella. Risotto pomodoro e gamberi combines arborio rice with shrimp, tomatoes and basil. It's tasty, though it should be lighter on the tongue. Farfalline al salmone uses small bow-tie pasta as a foil for little bits of cooked salmon in a light cream sauce. Agnolotti panna is a rich, crescent shaped ravioli with a spinach filling and a thick cream sauce.

Secondi like pollo arrosto rosmarino-- roast chicken with rosemary--and spiedino gamberi --fat grilled shrimp with herbs and garlic--are fine, but I'd save room for the chef's veal and beef dishes. I've already mentioned the perfectly braised, amazingly tender osso buco. There's also tagliata Toscana , flank steak marinated with black pepper, grilled, sliced and topped with fresh corn--a wonderful idea.

Another winner is costoletta Milanese , a nearly perfect, entirely greaseless bone-in veal cutlet. This thinly pounded masterpiece comes spread out on the plate with garlic-infused roasted potatoes. The veal is surrounded by a light, crunchy breading that made me think, inexplicably, of a chicken-fried steak I once ate at a roadhouse in Austin, Tex.

Maybe all these greens and yellows are going to my head. More likely, I ate too much.

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WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Benvenuto Caffe, 12321 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

Suggested Dishes: Panzanella Senese , $4.25; pizza Siracusana , $8.50; gnocchi Sorrentina , $7.50; osso buco gremolato , $15.95.

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday to Saturday. Closed Monday.

MasterCard, Visa, Diners Club and Discover.

Call: (818) 762-6666.

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