That's Federico Fellini in the photo, slurping noodles from a bowl as if there was no tomorrow. The photo's on the wall of Cafe 8 1/2, named for a surrealistic autobiographical movie he directed. And there's pasta here at this cafe, but amazingly, for Ventura Boulevard, not the slightest hint of a wood-fired pizza.
Four of us chose to sit in Cafe 8 1/2's spacious patio one hot August evening, where we were immediately plied with spongy, deliciously yeasty focaccia and an irresistible olive dip with lots of garlic and capers. Before we knew it, we'd polished off two bowls of it and two baskets of the bread.
The appetizers were middling--flavorless mozzarella; bland prosciutto; OK stracciatella soup; reasonably good spinach, pecan and Gorgonzola salad--but the pastas were surprisingly good. Fusilli was an enormous bowl of corkscrew pasta cooked perfectly al dente, with the chunks of hot-smoked salmon adding the ideal dose of saltiness to the cream sauce. The pasta arrabbiata blended penne with a light tomato sauce, hot peppers and plenty of blanched garlic.
Of the dozens of Italian restaurants on the Boulevard, this is one of the few that does gnocchi well.
The little potato/flour puffs melt in your mouth without being gummy or mushy, and the sauce is a wonderful blend of mascarpone cheese, butter and porcini mushrooms. It's exceedingly rich, but it won't distract you from the gnocchi itself.
Apart from the grilled salmon, the secondi dishes are all chicken or veal. Pollo alla Romana is a big, juicy piece of deboned chicken with prosciutto (magical here, though it's dull as an appetizer) and porcini mushrooms reduced in an elegant sauce.
Lombatina di vitello is a proper veal chop on the bone, judiciously cooked in the pan with fresh leeks and spinach. All the secondi come with either a nice melange of broccoli, carrots and zucchini or a side of pasta marinara.
The cafe has a good list of domestic and imported wines with good deals, such as a fruity but crisp chardonnay from northwestern Italy's Alois Ladeger for only $25 and Ladeger's bracing merlot at the same price.
About the only desserts are factory-made fruit sorbets such as orange, lemon and pineapple served in hollowed-out pieces of their respective fruits.
But yes, there's a completely average tiramisu. I suppose an Italian restaurant that eschews both pizza and tiramisu simply doesn't exist.
Cafe 8 1/2, 18588 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Parking in rear. Full bar. All major cards. Dinner for two, $29-$47. Suggested dishes: spinach, pecan and Gorgonzola salad, $6; fusilli salmone, $11; gnocchi ai funghi porcini, $10.50; pollo alla Romana, $13. Call (818) 343-8588.