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A California Chef's Italian Fantasy

October 04, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

For a chef who's been in the business for more than 21 years with three popular Santa Monica restaurants under his belt, the idea of opening a little Italian place by the beach that serves only dinner five nights a week was seductive. He'd have plenty of time during the day to shop the farmers market and a life away from the restaurant. The regular menu would be small: a handful of appetizers, pastas and risottos, with the same number of main courses. And the open dining room would be filled with congenial guests, many of them friends.

With his new restaurant, Capo (short for "chef"), Bruce Marder, who created the casual but now- defunct West Beach Cafe and the stylish Mexican restaurant Rebecca's, is now living out his fantasy. When he teamed up with Marvin Zeidler (his partner in Broadway Deli) and Wally's wine shop owner Steve Wallace, Marder didn't know that it would take almost three years to get the building permit. The wait, however, gave him time to develop Capo's concept, research ideas in Italy and experiment with dishes.

Capo is a good-looking place. Marder and his wife, Rebecca, have put together a warm, comfortable setting for the artsy, intellectual crowd. The ceiling is high. Windows are bracketed in black curtains. Wines are displayed in handsome wood and glass cabinets. Black-and-white cane armchairs are commodious enough to invite lingering. Small paintings and other artwork cover the walls. And a richly painted trompe l'oeil mural of a basket of fruit looks as if it's about to topple off a beam. Through the wood Venetian blinds on the windows to the kitchen, you can glimpse the cooks in flat white caps.

The restaurant has a settled presence, as if the same diners have been pushing open the heavy red velvet curtain and threading their way among the closely packed tables for years. At the bar, perched on the tall stools, a glamorous set sips Veuve Clicquot and nibbles on homemade potato chips and olives. The crowd includes people you'd recognize from television or the trade papers. One night, just behind me, I hear an instantly recognizable Austrian voice (and wonder what the big guy is eating).

The menu is a small, beautifully printed booklet. But before you decide what to order, listen to the specials. The wait staff is well-coached in presenting the menu and the food to best advantage. Your waiter may explain that much of the organic produce comes from the chef's one-acre "farm" in Pacific Palisades. "Most of the greens, herbs and some of the tomatoes come from his garden. You never know what he's going to bring in," the waiter tells us, "so it's kind of fun. This afternoon he showed up with a huge eggplant swaddled in a blanket in the back of the car, and that became one of the night's specials."

So, of course, we have to try the rustic polenta topped with the chef's organic baby Swiss chard. Inset with nuggets of molten Scamorza cheese, it makes a tasty dish. But when I later notice that those few leaves of chard and a little cornmeal cost $16, they don't seem quite as delicious. The waiter points out the basket of heirloom tomatoes on the counter in front of the kitchen, and we can't resist. But we get a plate of milky bufala mozzarella and sliced tomatoes that aren't particularly good (it hasn't been a great year for tomatoes)--and it turns out to be $16, too. At that price, the tomatoes should be the best we've ever eaten. Sure, there are restaurants as expensive, but for this much money, expectations are higher and the kitchen had better deliver.

Overall, Capo has got just about everything right: the ambience, the service, the hand-painted faience, the wine list. Everything, that is, except the food. Marder is very much an American cook. That's what he knows, and that's where he excels. In its heyday, West Beach Cafe was terrific. But Marder is out of his element here: He doesn't have a thorough enough grounding in Italian cuisine. Not every Italian restaurant must be true to tradition, but if he's going to reinterpret the cuisine, his dishes have to be as good, if not better, than the originals. American chefs seem to think cooking Italian food is easy. After all, it only requires great ingredients, the intelligence to put them together with balance and restraint, and the touch of a grandmother who's been making pasta for 50 years.

There are some good dishes here, but few of them taste particularly Italian. One that does is the sheaves of crackling-thin Sardinian flatbread called carta da musica--music paper. Baked in-house, it's irresistible. Another is ribbons of burgundy and white rosso di Treviso radicchio and sharp peppery arugula tossed with baby artichokes and mushrooms in a mustard vinaigrette. A lovely minestrone made with a tomato broth, plus fava beans, carrots, potatoes, chard and postage-stamp-sized ravioli filled with ricotta, is light and flavorful. A nice rendition of shrimp with both cannellini and haricots verts needs just a squeeze of lemon to bring it into focus.

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