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Life Within the Box 

Wednesday, Aug 28 2002
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

LA BUCA IS A TINY NEW ITALIAN CAFÉ ON MELROSE, JUST EAST OF the studios. And I mean tiny. It is, as named, a box -- about as high as it is wide. The walls are crowded with poster-size movie stills from Italian comedies and dramas: a young Mastroianni from La Dolce Vita, Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful and numerous images of Sophia Loren throughout her career. There's an old man gazing at an Italian mama's massive backside, from Amarcord. There's an older Mastroianni hugging Faye Dunaway and, to the left of that, a picture of a handsome young man with blood on his shirt hugging an older Faye Dunaway.

That handsome man -- though you may not recognize him at first -- is the owner of La Buca, Armando Pucci. Of the photo he says, "I have just been shot. Columbo has come in and saved the day."

These days, Armando Pucci's hair is neither so long nor so dark brown, and, God bless him, he is not so young -- though he is far from old. He will tell you, with a certain resignation, that he's not acting at present -- but who knows what the future will bring? He has often spent lean times between acting jobs working as a waiter in restaurants, he says, notably Toscana in Brentwood and Tra Di Noi in Malibu, two esteemed Italian dinner houses. During a present-day hiatus, he decided to open La Buca, just a stone's throw from Paramount and Raleigh -- a strategic location, all things considered. He imported a former cook from Toscana to man the kitchen.

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La Buca runs, largely, on Pucci's personality -- which is to say, like the movie stills on the wall, the place has the cheerful, game, slightly wacky ambiance of an Italian comedy. Armando describes the attractive blond Romanian woman behind the counter according to his whim: his "girlfriend . . . or lover . . . or employee." In an instance of startling political incorrectness, he'll point to her butt with pride, then shows how he's drawn a sketch of it on the special board. She just laughs. (His real wife, actually, can sometimes be found helping out on the premises.)

Lest you be misled by the résumés of its employees, this spirited little "box of life" is nothing like Toscana. La Buca, rather, is like any number of small Italian cafés that sprang up throughout the city during the last recession. Pizza, pasta, insalate -- those old saws are here in spades. A few daily specials. In no instance has the cook thought outside the box.

La Buca does make its own bread, pizza dough, gnocchi and ravioli, though -- and all of these are worth eating. The bread and dough remind me of Angeli's, rustic and fragrant, although not as chewy and lacking the subtle crunch. La Buca's pizzas are thin but not too thin in the Neapolitan style, and traditionally topped like the Margherita (tomato sauce and mozzarella) and the Napoli (tomato sauce, mozzarella, anchovy and capers). Other combinations are named -- randomly, it seems -- for the stars on the walls above: Sophia Loren (Margherita with mushrooms), Roberto Benigni (Margherita with broccoli and chicken), Sergio Leone, Dino De Laurentiis, Armando . . .

Much of Italian cooking relies on the simple preparation of excellent product. The La Buca kitchen relies on simple preparation and, well, at times finesses a good outcome. An impromptu, complimentary bruschetta made with sautéed peppers and garlic was the best appetizer we ate there. One of Pucci's most charming characteristics is that whenever we expressed a desire for something, on or off the menu, he did his best to provide it. In one case, I'd asked if the rigatoni "matriciana" had pepper in it, meaning dry pepper flakes, or chiles. Armando said no, no, but he'd give me peppers, and shortly thereafter delivered the delicious complimentary bruschetta.

Other appetizers were not so inspired. Fried calamari, while tasty, was tough. Polenta with wild mushrooms was salty cornmeal mush topped with your average supermarket mushrooms -- not a wild fungus in sight. The tricolor salad of radicchio, endive and arugula was large and a bit wilted. The caprese, also a generous portion, could have benefited from any or all of the following: better cheese, better tomato, better olive oil. Then again, this is not Toscana -- this is a small, amiable neighborhood Italian joint.

But there are some notable dishes. House-made potato gnocchi had a fine, soft-to-melting texture and good potato flavor. We had it with an osso buco ragu -- meaty, flavorful and lusty, it's probably the best use of a leftover imaginable. And then there are the house-made ravioli -- well, they really don't look like ravioli, they look more like small pasta envelopes filled with fresh spinach and ricotta and served in your choice of tomato, meat or a cream-and-radicchio sauce. We had the latter, the radicchio pleasantly bitter and slippery in the cream, the spinach spiked with nutmeg in the ever so nicely chewy pasta.

Daily specials, however, disappointed: Lamb chops Milanese (pounded flat, breaded and fried) were very crisp, but I couldn't really taste the lamb. The swordfish wasn't particularly fresh and, that said, was also cooked to death. A New York steak served Florentine style on salad -- well, let's just say that this is not the place to order steak.

The true delight in this modest little box is the personality of its owner, the oddball charm of its humble décor, and the human comedy passing through.

5210Þ Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 462-1900. Lunch Mon.­Fri. 11:30 a.m.­3 p.m., dinner Mon.­Fri. 5:30­10:30 p.m. and Sat. 4:30­10:30 p.m. Entrées $7.95­$18. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. AE, MC, V.

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