CAFFE DELFINI'S SEAFOOD DISHES ARE A CATCH.
Don't get too locked in on an entree selection while perusing the printed menu at Caffe Delfini, because the nightly specials are the forte of this inviting neighborhood spot tucked away in a canyon between Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica.
On one visit, plump, luscious grilled scallops nestled in a bed of spinach with a touch of white wine, chili pepper and garlic ($28) -- a superb dish. Another time, the highlight was fusilli with shrimp and shiitake mushrooms, accented with a reduction of tomatoes and cream sauce and those same hints of chili pepper and garlic ($22).
The waiter will rattle off a long list of specials -- not three or four, more like eight -- such that you wish they'd print the darned thing up nightly so you could peruse it more leisurely. Listen for his recommendation; you won't be steered wrong.
Also, be advised that seafood is the specialty here (as you might expect for a place that uses the Italian word for dolphin). I made the mistake of taking a stab at something more traditional, veal piccata ($24), and although the thin medallions of veal were tender enough, they were so heavily laced with a lemon-juice preparation that you could taste little else.
For starters, consider the pasta fagioli ($8), finely chopped pasta in a puree of white cannelloni beans and chicken broth. The beans aren't pulverized but retain a pleasing coarseness. For the caprese ($12), the mozzarella is creamy and flavorful, but the tomato was found to have a bland quality, as if picked up at a supermarket rather than a farmer's market.
For dessert (all $8), skip the chocolate decadence of the bacio -- "it's designed for an American palate," our waiter sniffed -- and opt instead for the subtle flavorings of the tartufo, which has a center of marsala and zabaglione ice cream surrounded by chocolate ice cream and carmelized hazelnut, and lightly dusted with cocoa powder. The tiramisu is homemade and infused with espresso -- plan on staying up awhile afterward.
At its best: Chef has a deft touch with shellfish, not overpowering it with the preparations.
Could be better: Crank up the printer for a nightly specials sheet. Customers' memories shouldn't be challenged to remember all the particulars of the long list of dishes.
>Details: 147 W. Channel Road, Santa Monica. Dinner nightly, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. (310) 459-8823; www.caffedelfini.com.
>Cost: Starters $6-$18.50, pastas $13.50 to $18.50, main courses $14 to $39, desserts $8.
>Noteworthy: There is an extreme street-parking crunch in this little neighborhood, so valet parking ($5) is a must. Delfini is a romantic place, with candles, white tablecloths, dim lights and prime tables in two window alcoves. But you'll need a flashlight (provided) to read the menu after the sun goes down. It can also get a bit noisy, what with tall ceilings and tile floors. The wine list leans heavily to Italian labels, and skews a bit high in price, with the standard bottle costing $40.
>Our rating: Two stars
Caffe Delfini, nestled in a canyon between Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades, is a comfortable Italian restaurant where the seafood and pasta are the featured players.
ERIC NOLAND>STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER