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Where life is dolce

Bella Cucina, a new old-school Italian, is a warm oasis amid the grit and glitz of Hollywood Boulevard.

January 04, 2006|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

TATTOO and piercing artists, newsstands and edgy bars, Musso & Frank and the American Cinematheque all inhabit the same stretch of Hollywood Boulevard. And right in its midst, a new restaurant called Bella has appeared at the corner of Las Palmas and Hollywood Boulevard. As it happens, it's right next door to Rokbar, one of the sexiest lounges in town right now. On nights when something's happening there, it can be a mob scene outside as valets sprint up, open doors, jump into the driver's seat and gun off into the night.

With all the clubs and restaurants that have opened recently on the Cahuenga corridor and Hollywood Boulevard, and against all odds, Hollywood is making its comeback as a playground for hipsters.

Bella isn't immune to the frenzy. Because it's on the corner, you can see up and down Hollywood Boulevard and the circus passing by made up of tourists and hustlers, the lonely and the desperate, hipsters and suburban wannabes. It's all one crazy, delirious mix.

Bella draws the dedicated cool crowd like a magnet, too, but on this side of the divide, the crowd is just a bit older and more sophisticated -- it's like an annex to trendy Hollywood designed for grown-ups.

Instead of a velvet rope, there's a little podium for the maitre d' right out front on the sidewalk, where some of Bella's guests are taking a smoking break, or waiting for friends. With our bona fide reservation, we're whisked inside, to one of the cozy, curved leather booths that line the windows along Hollywood Boulevard. Wine list, please. And a Manhattan -- hold the cherry -- for our faithful driver and bon vivant. Put together by Leslie Gibson, it's a fine little Italian list with some unexpected and moderately priced choices, especially in whites.

A dozen or so wines by the glass are listed on the board above the bar, next to a flat-screen television playing a pristine print of "La Dolce Vita." Anita Ekberg, playing an American movie star, tosses her blond mane this way then that, basking in the attention of Marcello Mastroianni and company. The flashbulbs pop. Rome glitters.


Southern style

BELLA'S full name is Bella Cucina Italiana, and the kitchen, under chef David Moreno, concentrates on the southern Italian cooking that was pretty much all Americans knew of Italian cuisine until the craze for northern Italian came along in the wake of Armani, Missoni and Versace.

Dominick's in West Hollywood brought back New York-style southern Italian food, retooling in 2004 such dishes as spaghetti and meatballs or braciole for a young Hollywood crowd to whom they seemed both familiar and exotic. And now Gaucho Grill founder Adolfo Suaya (who is involved in a slew of trendy restaurants including the Lodge and the new Memphis) and his partner the Dolce Group (Dolce, Geisha House) have turned a primo corner space on Hollywood Boulevard into this slick retro-Italian.

Although he hired Dodd Mitchell as designer on several of his other projects, Suaya decided to play that role himself at Bella. It's more welcoming and certainly warmer in feeling than those other, more grandiose projects. He has hung black and white photos of '50s and '60s Italian movie stars high on the walls to set the tone. Stunning Murano glass chandeliers overhead look like giant licorice confections in black and white. Waitresses, though, are condemned to wear black chiffon outfits trimmed in white lace that would have made even Anna Magnani look silly. It's obviously some sly designer's take on an Italian peasant dress. Not.

Starters include, of course, fried calamari; at Bella, natch, it comes with a pretty good spicy marinara sauce. It's perfect to share, just enough to take the edge off your appetite. If you order prosciutto here, it's excellent quality, cut just thin enough to savor its wonderful sweet taste. Spare yourself the caprese salad, though: No matter what anybody tells you, tomatoes aren't in season right now and won't be for months. Opt instead for insalata bella, a lighter version of the old chef's salad, garnished with matchsticks of salami, mozzarella and avocado.

And if you really want to get in the southern Italian mode, go for the melanzane al forno, slices of eggplant and mozzarella layered with a loose, fresh tomato sauce.

I look up to see the famous scene of Anita Ekberg wading in the fountain of Trevi, looking every bit the goddess she is, while Mastroianni struggles to keep up. He's deep in la dolce vita and it's exhausting.

Meanwhile, we're fortifying ourselves for the Hollywood night with spaghetti and meatballs and penne arrabiata. The spaghetti has improved since my first visit -- it's not as overcooked -- but those meatballs could still use something to ramp up the flavor. Penne, though, are filling and good and the arrabiata ("angry") sauce packs a small jolt of heat. Linguine with clams is another standby that's decent here without tipping the balance to fabulous.

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