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Pastas to Leave Home For

Caffe Capri offers southern Italian-style cooking with an authentic, genial touch.

November 02, 2000|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Next to Silver Lake's well-known Zen Sushi is a restaurant that's pretty far removed from anything you would associate with Zen. Or with sushi, for that matter. You can recognize Caffe Capri by its plastic ivy decor, "Finiculi, Finucula" soundtrack and walls full of odd tchotchkes, such as a plaque of a singing bass fish.

Yes, the place has a lively, genial Italian atmosphere, and the cuisine is in the southern Italian style. The prices are reasonable, the portions are large, and the food sometimes aims rather higher than the home cooking level.

In fact, if this place has any real faults, they are lack of a wine license (fortunately, Bogie's Liquor across the street stocks half a dozen Chiantis) and parking spaces.

Pasta, Pasta Everywhere

The antipasto platter is mostly sliced vegetables (carrots, peppers, fried zucchini and eggplant) dressed with oil and tarragon vinegar, plus a few chunks of mozzarella. It does the job, but I prefer the calamari fritti (light breading, fresh, somewhat garlicky tomato dipping sauce) or the melanzane ai funghi, a hot casserole of eggplant, peppers and mushrooms baked with cheese. This last would be an entree by many a restaurant's standards.

Pastas--about a dozen of them, two-thirds being vegetarian--dominate the regular menu. By far the richest is rigatoni norcina, mixed with sausages, mushrooms and a devastating Marsala cream sauce. It's the item that had everybody at my table judiciously declaring it "the bomb."

It's definitely bombish, but I am at least as impressed with penne siciliana, mixed with fresh tomato sauce, eggplant and mozzarella. The eggplant's bittersweet note seems to epitomize the age-old wisdom of the sunburned Mediterranean, unless I'm reading way too much into it.

Fedelini checca, a sort of spaghettini simply dressed with chopped tomatoes, garlic and oil, is topped with some fresh mozzarella. Penne broccoli is also rather simple in conception: broccoli, olive oil, some sun-dried tomatoes and a little dry ricotta. Linguine alla ricotta romana features ricotta and sun-dried tomatoes too but comes in a garlicky tomato sauce with basil and radicchio.

The peppery tomato sauce on the penne arrabbiata gets character from chunks of garlic and a suggestion of sweet spice (cinnamon?). All the menu says about capellini spinaci is that the angel hair comes with spinach, garlic and sage, but that doesn't suggest how light and fresh the dish is (and it doesn't mention the melted cheese). The only disappointing pasta is the spinach ravioli, a bit lost in its strong tomato sauce and rather too chewy.

After the pastas the menu lists half a dozen secondi, but the pasta servings are so generous the waiter is likely to be surprised if you actually order a meat course after a pasta. There's a good chicken piccata among them, served with fresh, barely cooked spinach, and a polenta con salsiccia that would be a lot better if the sausages were less plain; the polenta itself has a good soft texture, and the topping of vegetables in Marsala sauce has a homey appeal. (By the way, all secondi come with excellent al dente vegetables roughly tossed with toasted garlic.)

On the whole, the secondi from the specials board seem better. I've had a beautifully cooked swordfish, moist and flaky, and a hearty osso buco loaded with vegetables. The special veal chop was also voted bomb status by my table, for the same reason as the rigatoni norcina: lots of mushrooms and a rich Marsala cream sauce.

Top It Off With Tiramisu

Caffe Capri doesn't slide by the dessert course. There are likely to be four or five choices, ranging from homemade chocolate cake with a sweetly old-fashioned cocoa frosting to more restaurant-like desserts such as zuccotto (a crunchy semi-frozen cake with an amaretto flavoring) or a thoroughly frozen pie-like spumoni cake.

Best of all, believe it or not, is the tiramisu, a tall model with a strong chiaroscuro effect: whipped cream and mascarpone set off by a heavy sprinkling of dark cocoa. It's enough to remind you why tiramisu became so popular.

Now if we can just get these people to start serving wine and put in a parking lot. . . .

BE THERE

Caffe Capri, 2547 Hyperion Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 644-7906; fax (323) 644-7916. Dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. No alcohol. Street parking. MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, $28-$44.

What to Get: melanzane ai funghi, antipasto, rigatoni norcina, penne siciliana, capellini spinaci, pollo piccata, veal chop, osso buco, swordfish, tiramisu, chocolate cake, zuccotto.

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