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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Cafe's Music, Menu Hit Too Few High Notes

Standouts at the eatery include deep-fried calamari and linguine with pesto. But several other dishes disappoint.

May 23, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The wine arrived just after the hokeypokey.

It was Monday, karaoke night at Cafe Bellissimo in Thousand Oaks, and a few of us needed a drink, prontissimo. The crowd had already endured raucous performances of "New York, New York" and "That's Amore," and my table was still awaiting the first round of appetizers.

This is the Ventura County branch of a popular Woodland Hills restaurant where the waiters sing--some of them, as it happens, remarkably well. In the documentary of the Monterey Pop Festival, there's a scene where Cass Elliott's jaw drops as she hears Janis Joplin sing. When a Bellissimo waitress named Amy Terrin belts out Patsy Cline's "Crazy," my jaw drops the same way.

But the customers' talents prove to be, well, somewhat less polished than Terrin's. Except for a guy waiting for a pizza who did a terrific rendition of "You're 16 (You're Beautiful, and You're Mine)," none of the diners should consider quitting their day jobs.

A sign on the front door explains that Cafe Bellissimo has opened in Thousand Oaks as a result of all the loyal Conejo Valley supporters who patronized the Woodland Hills restaurant. It doesn't tell us that the Woodland Hills restaurant is the province of Mama Sara Bellissimo and her sons Emilio and Tony, a family that has brought a slice of Sicilian Americana to the West Valley.

*

Yes, the new Cafe Bellissimo relies on Sara's homey, trencherman-style recipes, but it's being run by one of the nephews. If you've eaten in the Woodland Hills restaurant, as I have, you're apt to miss Mama Sara's presence in the kitchen here. The food is spotty. In fact, it misses far more often than it hits.

No cliches have been spared in the restaurant's hokey design. Christmas lights and party favors hang from the ceiling. There are columns of ersatz terra cotta, checkered tablecloths and a mural depicting life in the Bellissimos' hometown on the island of Sicily.

My party got its meal started with an order of arancini, the rice balls I remember fondly from the Woodland Hills restaurant. Like the originals, these crunchy golden golf balls are glued together with mozzarella cheese, peas and a rich meat sauce, but here the sauce tastes scorched, and the balls are cold in the middle.

The crisply deep-fried calamari proved to be the best appetizer, the scampi (sauteed with plenty of butter, garlic and mushroom) coming in a close second. And none of us much minded the bruschetta: five enormous hunks of toasted Italian bread topped with fresh chopped tomatoes, garlic, basil and cheese.

But the insalata Gazzana was an unimpressive pile of roasted peppers, pungent little black olives and disappointingly flaccid slices of raw onion. And pizza Margherita, which we assumed would be a safe choice, was gummy and dull. Normally this combination of tomato, garlic, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil is foolproof, but here the garlic was burned and the tomatoes were heaped on helter-skelter. And the crust turned to stone as it cooled.

Things didn't improve when we got the main courses, either. By far the best was homemade linguine with (plenty of) pesto; the noodles had plenty of bite. Other main dishes were letdowns. The veal Marsala was as chewy as shoe leather; the chicken piccata--huge hunks of breaded chicken dosed with capers, lemon and white wine--was oily and soggy.

On another evening, a friend wrestled with a piece of grilled swordfish that had been left too long on the grill. I'd ordered lasagna al forno, a dish I remember having enjoyed at Cafe Bellissimo Woodland Hills, but here I merely picked at it.

This fortress-like square, protected by a shell of molten cheese and tomato sauce, contains layers of a reasonably chewy pasta, some flavorful ricotta cheese and a generous amount of ground meat. But by the time I scraped aside the sauce and cheese, I'd lost my appetite.

On karaoke night, though, everyone's appetite was restored when La Terrin did a jazz number, and an excellent tiramisu almost got us to our cars in high spirits. This tiramisu is made with real ladyfingers and thick mascarpone cream, leaving us wondering why some of the other dishes weren't prepared with as much care.

Oh, well. Just do the hokeypokey and turn yourself around. But make sure you get your wine first.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Cafe Bellissimo.

* WHERE: 105 Brazil St., Thousand Oaks.

* WHEN: Open for dinner 4-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4-9:30 p.m. Sunday; brunch 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $26-$52. Suggested dishes: calamari fritti, $4.50; bruschetta, $3.95; linguine al pesto, $9.95; tiramisu, $4.

* FYI: Full bar. Parking in rear lot. All major cards.

* CALL: (805) 379-3811.

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