Linguini Bopper

Che Bella Tuscan Grill & Bakery, Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback, Phoenix, 956-5705. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.

What comes to mind when you think about improving the Valley's quality of life? Reliable mass transit? Better schools? Responsible development? Unindicted politicians?

How about more Italian restaurants? I suspect this idea would not land very high on most folks' list. It would probably fall somewhere between suggestions to increase the number of parking spaces at Fashion Square and calls to hire mimes to perform at freeway off-ramps.

After all, Phoenix is awash in Italian restaurants--a few great ones, a few terrible ones and scores of mediocre ones. But the numbers haven't deterred the proprietors of Che Bella and Raghetti's, who've recently started operations a few blocks apart along the once-glitzy Camelback corridor. Apparently, they think they can distinguish themselves from the crowd.

Che Bella (pronounced KAY-BELLA) occupies the spot that formerly housed Oscar Taylor, whose long run ended earlier this year. The name means "How nice" in Italian, and that phrase certainly applies to the striking bar area, an upscale habitat thick with fashionable folks and cigar smoke. The airy, refurbished dining area has acquired a "contemporary" design that still needs tweaking: The overhead lights don't focus on the tables; the stylish, curved-back chairs are more comfortable to look at than to sit in; and the mood-destroying, thumpa-thumpa rock music pumped in during one visit must have escaped from Houlihan's, a few doors down.

The restaurant's backers certainly understand the importance of location. The Biltmore Fashion Park area offers almost every sort of fare--Japanese, Mexican, Southwestern, American, French, fusion, seafood, steak. Oddly, though, a big-time, white-linen-tablecloth Italian place has not been part of the mix. Can Che Bella fill the slot? I'd say maybe, almost.

When the kitchen is on, as it is with the appetizers, it's hard to believe there can be any doubts. For proof, check out the luscious baked polenta, adorned with rich Gorgonzola cheese, embellished with a mound of savory wild mushrooms and garnished with Belgian endive. This dish smacks you full force with the heady flavors of Tuscany.

Antipasto is a good measure of an Italian restaurant's commitment to quality. Here, too, Che Bella delivers, assembling a hearty combination of meats, squid, peppers, eggplant, artichokes, palm hearts, fresh mozzarella, marinated mushrooms, tomato and basil. But the mushy focaccia that accompanied the platter tasted as if it had come out of the oven long before the dinner hour.

Porcini Napoleone is another tasty starter, teaming the earthy-flavored mushrooms with goat cheese and peppers, all moistened in an appealing orange-tomato vinaigrette. And soup fans shouldn't mind shelling out $5.50 for a bowl of the house minestrone, a thick, bean-studded broth flecked with a bit of lobster and suffused with the scent of basil. Homemade Italian bread, crusty and chewy, makes a perfect partner.

If the main dishes had been as universally stimulating as the appetizers, Che Bella would join Franco's Trattoria, Un-Bacio and La Locanda in the front rank of local northern Italian restaurants. Though several entrees do approach the heights, others fall significantly short.

At the top of the list is the sea bass, an expertly charbroiled slab, with an alluringly moist, flaky interior and crusty exterior. It's lined with prosciutto, and paired with first-rate scalloped potatoes and grilled veggies. The $14.50 tag is nowadays practically a bargain in this town.

Gnocchi, potato flour dumplings, are also outstanding. Che Bella's models are light and fluffy, perfect vehicles for the wonderfully rich mascarpone cheese sauce that coats them. The seafood risotto, one evening's daily special, hits the bull's eye, as well. Shrimp, scallops and mussels impart a briny flavor to the cheesy rice. This is an intense, heavy dish, and Che Bella doesn't stint on the portion, either. (If I had to do it over again, I'd probably order it as a shared appetizer.)

However, the kitchen needs to work on its animal protein. The only beef dish on the menu, a grilled filet, falls short of the highest standard. The nifty black olive sauce that coats it couldn't entirely obscure the mediocrity. Veal, the meat choice of northern Italy, also doesn't get its due here. My grilled veal chop, for which I had been panting, was a huge disappointment. It was somewhat puny, which I could forgive. But it was also a mass of inedible gristle, which I couldn't. And the malfatti di salsa al pomodoro, spinach-ricotta dumplings in a fresh tomato sauce, had a lackluster, one-dimensional quality. My interest in these dumplings expired long before I filled up on them.

The house-made desserts furnished partial redemption. Panna cotta is the trendy dessert of the moment, a wickedly rich, puddinglike confection that will send you home smiling. Be the first on your block to try it. Tiramisu, the former trendy dessert titleholder, is staggeringly intense, a creamy mocha mousse sitting on espresso-soaked ladyfingers. Chocolate silk, a mousse cake resting on a cookie-crumb crust, is very chocolaty and very heavy.

But I couldn't get very excited about Che Bella's signature dessert, spaghetti gelato. That's because when it comes to ice cream, I'm a purist (as well as an addict). Here, ice cream is shredded in a special machine to resemble spaghetti, then covered with strawberry sauce and white chocolate shavings. Spare me the bells and whistles.

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