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Veni, Vidi, Vinci

Caffe Bella Napoli
Robert Scheer

Gold-Plated: Caffe Bella Napoli chefs and co-owners Giancarlo Pasquarelli (left) and Giovanni Di Maio show off a decorative display of salmone marinato, one of their tantalizing appetizers.

Italian cuisine continues to conquer our fair region, launching its latest assault in the charming guise of Caffe Bella Napoli

By Christina Waters

BY THE LOOKS OF THINGS LAST WEEK, two restaurateurs from Naples have made Santa Cruzans very, very happy. Not merely by resurrecting the former Emmanuelle (despite its awkward location) and transforming it into Caffe Bella Napoli, but by providing authentic, to-die-for Italian cuisine near the corner of Ocean and Water streets. Showing tenacity as well as culinary expertise, chefs and co-owners Gaetano Balsamo and Giovanni Di Maio haven't let the tardiness of the cafe's wine license stop them from welcoming droves of admirers to Bella Napoli.

More Italian than English was being spoken in the background last weekend as we took a table, had the bottle of Rufina Chianti Riserva 1993 we'd brought along opened to breathe a bit and let the sunset light filling the pretty cafe work its relaxing magic. Looks good, we agreed while dredging soft bits of francese bread into a particularly feisty blend of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The sophisticated ambiance of the dining rooms was enhanced by the rhythmic sounds of garlic being chopped in the kitchen.

Suddenly the restaurant was full, its charm going full-tilt. That charm was more than matched by our wonderful dinner.

After our hardworking waiter ran through a tongue-twisting litany of daily specials--some fresh seafood creations, a pork with porcini dish, filet mignon and a flank steak creation--we chose appetizers of fresh mussels with garlic, white wine and pepper ($6.95) and a plate of bresaola and arugula ($6.95).

The chianti softened nicely by the time our plates arrived. The mussels, presented in their shiny black shells, were sweet and tender, the sweetness permeating a light broth of lemon, wine and garlic at the bottom of the bowl. Always searching for satisfying mussels, my companion admitted that even in his own kitchen, he could do no better than this well-balanced dish.

My thinly sliced, cured beef had been lightly topped with olive oil and wilted arugula leaves. Thin lemon slices ringed the plate. Taking the hint, I squeezed the tangy juice over the rich beef. Why is wilted arugula so much more interesting than even the fresh, peppery version? Well, it is, and it brandished considerable sex appeal in this appetizer. The chianti made each bite sing--don't forget to bring your own to Caffe Bella Napoli until the wine license is in place.

The kitchen was pumping on full steam by this point, pouring forth its dishes at an uneven pace. Our entrées followed instantly upon the last forkful of arugula, while our neighbors sat with their salads long after we'd started our desserts. The need for fine-tuning is to be expected with all new establishments. But not all new establishments deliver dishes worth the wait. Caffe Bella Napoli does.

From the long list of pasta dishes--most featuring vegetables, cheeses and seafoods--I'd succumbed to a spaghettini di papa ($9.95), in which potatoes are allowed to play with pasta, something that I feel is quite daring for reasons I cannot explain. The pasta was--let me say this with great emphasis--splendidly and defiantly al dente. Laced to the high heavens with nutty, toasty garlic, red pepper flakes, extra virgin olive oil, cubes of white potato and slices of fresh green beans, this was the sort of pasta Fellini might have for breakfast.

My companion's platter was dominated by an enormous, thick, medium-rare pork chop (we had to do some fast talking to convince the chef that we really wanted it this way) smothered in a very light, very earthy porcini sauce spiked with cream and dusted with fresh parsley ($11.95). The pork was joined by roasted potatoes and impeccably cooked, fresh green beans. We both locked eyes, realizing that we were in the presence of sensitive Italian cooking.

Of our two desserts--a flan bathed in strawberry purée, and a housemade tiramisu bordered by way too much chocolate syrup--I preferred the sinful mascarpone, ladyfinger and liqueur heart of the latter (both $4.50). Unable to choose, my companion finished up both desserts.

That night, I dreamed of pasta.

Caffe Bella Napoli

Address: 503 Water St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 426-7401
Hours: Lunch 11:30am­2pm, dinner 5:30­9:30pm (closed Sun)
Prices: Moderate
Chefs: Giovanni Di Maio and Giancarlo Pasquarelli
Ambiance: ** 1/2 Smart trattoria intimacy
Service: ** 1/2 Extremely forthcoming, verging on the dramatic
Cuisine: *** Excellent house specialties, perfect pasta
Overall: A godsend for Italiaphiles hungry for the real thing straight from the Old Country

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *OK

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From the March 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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