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Burning Ambitions

Caffé Bella Napoli
Robert Scheer

Grate 'A' Cuisine: Caffé Bella Napoli's Giancarlo Pasquarelli (left) and Giovanni Di Maio work their Italian culinary magic, creating entrées that expand far beyond standard lasagna fare.

From the frying pan into the spotlight, vivacious Caffé Bella Napoli is reborn and enjoying a well-received renaissance

By Christina Waters

THE PROSPECT WAS INTRIGUING. Dinner at a popular Italian restaurant without a trace of pasta on our table. Did we dare? One glance at the wicked grin on my companion's face and I decided to take the challenge--a meal at the post-fire, happily reopened Caffé Bella Napoli that would involve pasta-free dishes.

Before you marvel at our chutzpah in masterminding such a meal, I have to confess that we made our decision based on the mouthwatering array of nightly specials involving roasted game hen and filet mignon smothered with mushrooms in truffle oil, as well as shellfish and veal dishes. It's also true that as our host/head waiter acted out the various menu possibilities, his hands made erotically eloquent figure-eight movements as he described the impossible thinness and lightness of the homemade lasagna noodles.

Still, one of the joys of liberating yourself from pasta for an evening--not that such an exercise should occur with any great frequency--is that you are able to focus on other aspects of Italian cuisine. Fresh herbs like rosemary and parsley, sensuous mushrooms and the vigorous grace of a Chianti Classico ($5) formed the patterns of enjoyment throughout our recent meal.

Noting the modest basket of francese provided along with olive oil and balsamic--poured with the reverence of an altar boy for sacred unguents by one of our angel-faced servers--my companion, Francesco, said approvingly, "Here the bread is played down--it clearly is intended to become an accent rather than a filler. The focus is on the food." And it was.

A huge insalatina di funghi fritti ($6.95) arrived on a platter with two plates. The large bed of baby greens--fresh, tender and flavorful--was heaped high with a warm forest of mushrooms, whose balsamic saucing dripped through the leaves, wilting them irresistibly. The daunting size of the serving was to prove prophetic.

Our main dishes were similarly oversized. The generosity of attitude that makes Caffé Bella Napoli such a warm hearth is translated--by the kitchen--into abundance. While few would complain about getting too much to eat, the amount of food on each plate was needlessly overwhelming.

Overwhelming and delicious.

Francesco's roasted game hen ($13.95) had been flattened into a moist, golden crescent. Perfumed with rosemary, it came lightly sauced in lemon and wine, and sided with three vegetables--two would have been plenty. Some green beans, a bit overcooked, a floret of perfectly steamed broccoli and a puree of sweet and white potatoes laced with garlic and tomatoes joined the game hen, everything dusted with fresh Italian parsley.

My order of filet mignon ($17.95) was even larger--and by now our tiny table-for-two was inundated with oversized dishes. Somewhere under an inch-thick blanket of sautéed mushrooms musky with truffle oil was a perfect, rare filet. Done with lemon, garlic, truffles, butter and parsley, the beef was superb. Perhaps a bit too butter-rich, but utterly pampering. My entrée also arrived with the same trio of vegetables.

We finished up with weak cappuccinos ($2) and a shared order of cannoli ($4.50)--the crisp little flute filled not with the classic ricotta cream but a sweet chocolate mousse. The pretty plate had been decorated with squiggles of strawberry puree and fresh mint leaves. Lovely, and for chocolate lovers a serious treat.

A night without pasta is possible, we realized, strolling to the door, just as a nearby patron enthused, "That was the finest lasagna I've ever had." Che vediamo.

Caffé Bella Napoli
Phone: 426-7401
Address: 503 Water St., Santa Cruz
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-2pm, dinner 5:30-10:30pm, closed Sunday
Chefs: Giancarlo Pasquarelli and Giovanni Di Maio
Cuisine: *** Voluptuous Italian classics, specializing in the earthy cooking of the south--dishes can be quite rich and generously portioned
Ambiance: **1/2 Charming and intimate, the café packs in a happy crowd in two tiny rooms and a few sidewalk tables
Service: *** Many servers, all smiling, some without benefit of the English language, work hard to please and assist
Overall: Short of a trip to Naples, this warm dining room puts locals into a deliciously Italian picture with radiant confidence.

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the Nov. 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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