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Mount Soledad neighborhood welcomes its own trattoria

In Italy, a trattoria is a neighborhood restaurant that serves homestyle meals in an informal setting. Trattoria Bella Vita, the newest restaurant in La Jolla, lives up to that description. This delightful little eatery gives diners a taste of Sicily at prices so modest, they compete with chain restaurants.

Trattoria Bella Vita serves lunch and dinner every weekday, with continuous service from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The restaurant opens at 4 p.m. on Saturday for dinner, and the same reasonable prices are available at all times.

This mom-and-pop-style restaurant owned by Chef Marcello La Torre and his wife Cecilia is a little off the beaten path, tucked away off Mount Soledad Road at Caminito Blythefield. It’s easy to drive right past the street, but this trattoria is worth discovering.

The restaurant specializes in pizza and other Sicilian delights, but just about everything on the menu is first-rate. We loved the two daily soups: a marvelous Sicilian classic lentil soup with prosciutto and salsiccia sausage and a satisfying tomato rice that can be prepared with or without cream.

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Trattoria Bella Vita always has at least one or two fresh soups every day, but they rotate them, so diners may find minestrone or a fagioli soup during their visit. What a wonderful way to start off a meal on a chilly winter day.

Pizzas are a good choice for lunch or dinner, and the assortment of toppings offered at Trattoria Bella Vita is impressive. The pies range from a hot salami, mozzarella and tomato sauce pizza ($12.45) to a four-cheese pie made with gorgonzola, ricotta, mozzarella and fontina ($12.95). There are eight pizzas on the menu, starting at $10.45 for a traditional margherita pie.

Every Italian restaurant worth its salt offers a selection of pastas, and Trattoria Bella Vita is no exception. The chef prepares about 15 pasta dishes for lunch or dinner, including a fantastic pescatore ($15.95). This mixture, served with a choice of white or red sauce, features shrimps, scallops, mussels and calamari.

The chef puts his own stamp on Sicilian meatballs ($12.95), so try them with your choice of pasta. This interesting preparation made with pine nuts, chopped raisins and fresh mint is the chef’s signature dish. It’s also one of the most popular items on the menu.

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The entree list abounds with authentic Italian favorites. Among them are flattened veal steak breaded and sauteed in olive oil ($14.45), calamari stuffed with bread crumbs, pine nuts, cheese, garlic and spices, grilled and served with marinara sauce ($15.95), Sicilian beef stew with red wine in a tomato sauce ($12.95), and saltimbocca ($15.95), a veal dish made with prosciutto and sage.

Fresh tuna is paired with eggplants, bell peppers and tomatoes and sauteed in olive oil ($14.95), and salmon is baked in a casserole with grana, provolone, fontina and cream ($14.95). Chicken piccata is another excellent item, featuring mushrooms and capers in a white wine and lemon butter sauce ($12.95). By the way, the same preparation is available with veal for another $3.

Our favorite appetizer was a classic known in Italy as caponata di Melanzane ($6.95). It is a cold combination of eggplant chunks, onions, olives, capers and celery cooked in a sweet and sour tomato sauce. Dunk some of the warm bread in this mixture for a heavenly start to a meal.

Classic bruschetta is available plain ($5.45) or with grilled eggplant ($5.95), smoked salmon and cream cheese ($6.95), or tuna and mascarpone cheese ($5.95). Any of these would make a great appetizer for sharing.

Antipasto misto, a sampling of cold Italian deli meats and cheeses, served with garlic bread, is another terrific starter. It can be shared for $6.95, and don’t miss the fried calamari with marinara sauce ($6.45) or the fresh mussels in port and white wine sauce ($7.45).

For lunch, the restaurant offers several paninis, including those fantastic Sicilian meatballs on a sub ($7.95), grilled vegetables with goat cheese and tomatoes ($7.95), and sliced tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella made with olive oil, basil and oregano ($7.95).

Salads are available for lunch or dinner, and the selection is tempting. We especially liked the grilled salmon with spring mix and other veggies, topped with a light olive oil and lemon dressing ($11.95). The house salad ($10.45), called Insalate Bella Vita, is made with breaded and grilled chicken breast over a special orange salad with onions.

Everything is made from scratch, and diners can tell the ingredients are fresh. That’s why the chef also includes several daily specials that take advantage of the market’s freshest produce.

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The homemade tiramisu is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Sicilian-style cannoli is another good choice for dessert.

The interior is small, with a cozy main dining area decorated in sunny yellow that evokes the warmth of southern Italy. Pretty pictures and plates on the walls and yellow cloths on the tables complete the look. The dining room is architecturally pleasing, with two nooks offering romantic dining for couples.

A quaint outdoor patio is perfect for lunch on a balmy day, and there’s a large courtyard area for alfresco dining that will soon get new tables and a covering overhead to provide protection from the wind.

Enjoy Trattoria Bella Vita’s friendly atmosphere, delicious home-style Italian cooking and pleasant service any day but Sunday. Parking is available right next to the entrance, and delivery service - with a minimum order of $20 - is provided after 5 p.m.

Trattoria Bella Vita is at 6435 Caminito Blythefield. Call (858) 551-1150.