THE BEACH HOUSE Italian Cafe (BHIC) is practically hidden, sitting atop Alki's Cherry Blossom Teriyaki. While the "restaurant-over-a-restaurant" concept can lead to the foul intermingling of cuisine odors, there would be none of that at BHIC. Chef Michael Vujovich, a native of Montenegro, has constructed a menu studded with rich, hearty dishes, each with enough smell-power to dominate the mild teriyaki fragrances coming from the floor below.

BHIC feels much like a tree house, and it's as though you've climbed up a giant oak to your secret little Italian hideaway. As with any tree house, there are some good things, and there are some bad things. For example, tree house furniture is usually primitive and uncomfortable. Ditto at BHIC, where postage stamp sized tables and flimsy plastic chairs dot the premier dining area. If you don't mind sitting deeper into the space, there is a viewless room with real furniture. We, however, chose the view and the accompanying furniture-induced sore backs and fannies.

As BHIC is an obvious "regulars" hang-out, our perky and personable server ID'd us immediately as newcomers, embarrassing us slightly with her showy welcome. First came a small bowl of delicious and aromatic olive oil, surrounded by pretty squares of extremely stale focaccia. Dry and crumbly, the chunks broke into small bits, bouncing off our chins onto the table and floor below. We knew better bread would surely follow with our meals, perhaps a sturdy Tuscan-style loaf, but when we asked if there would be other bread, we were deeply saddened by the negative reply.

Our fresh and delicious Caprese ($5.95) and Insalata Primavera ($5.50) salads moved us past the focaccia situation, although the perfectly ripened slices of olive-oil-imbued roma tomatoes and accompanying mozzarella wedges would've sat perfectly on a rustic and chewy Italian country bread. The Insalata Primavera was dense and busy, literally packed with varied and crunchy items. This unpretentious and frisky little garden gladiator was simply loaded with onions, garlic, mushrooms, and crunchy bell peppers, stacked high over a pile of organic baby greens. Aggressively dressed with a punchy vinaigrette, this green gobbler sent us to the moon.

And our ascent would continue. Next came Spaghetti Putanesca à la Julie ($7.95), another crowded dish. More a celebration of freshness than a menu item, the putanesca sang out with strong, harmonious flavors of black imported olives, salty anchovies, crisp parsley, capers, lots of olive oil, and a light red sauce. With a heavy nod to Sicilian-style cooking, the pungent sauce came on like a ton of bricks, forcing us to slow our vigorous eating pace as the earthy weightiness kicked in.

Our ascent would halt quickly as the Lasagna ($8.50) arrived. Apparently prepared in hell, this large and creamy-looking portion came bubbling on a dangerously hot and unapproachable plate. "The plate is hot, so be careful!" came the understated warning. We could literally feel the blast-furnace heat shooting off the plate and the lasagna. Had it actually been baked on this plate in the oven? Our puzzlement could only lead us to more questions: Why not heat it up, then put it on a cooler plate to serve? Literally 10 minutes later, the lasagna's heat still resisted approach, although we went for it anyway, eating small forkfuls through cries of "ouch!" and "dang, that's hot!" As we later relayed the case of the overheated lasagna to an experienced out-eater, we would be struck by the wisdom and logic of his response: "Serving food that hot is wrong, just plain wrong."

Feeling lucky to have avoided any lasagna-related facial blistering, we chose some Tiramisu ($3.50), if only to serve as a cooling salve to our lips and gums. Another reason to politely summon the server and order tiramisu is to preempt the inevitable and dreaded, "Would you like some tiramisu tonight? It's a rich and creamy blah blah..." presentation. As we made our tiramisu request, our server would smile approvingly, letting us know that indeed, we had made the right choice. Naturally, this was borne out as our dessert-intake commenced. While maintaining the requisite chocolate creaminess, a light and airy bouquet would claim center stage.

Even with the evening's mishaps, BHIC's warm and neighborly charm, rock-bottom prices, and passionate food preparation spell V-A-L-U-E with a capital V. Situated with perfect access to Alki Beach (the resort area that time forgot), BHIC's treehouse ambience beckons. Just be sure to take a welder's mask if you order the lasagna.

Beach House Italian Cafe, 2629 Alki Ave SW, 935-4221. Lunch Tues-Sun, noon-3 pm; dinner Sun, Tues-Thurs, 5 pm-10 pm, Fri-Sat, 5 pm-11 pm; closed Monday. Beer and wine.

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