THE FIRST THING you put in your mouth at La Rustica is a delicious strip of warm focaccia bread, split in half for easy consumption. While a strong argument can be made that focaccia is a tired substitute for more chewy, country-style Italian breads, La Rustica's focaccia is as good as it gets. It's a fine dalliance while you check out the decor of this cozy little West Seattle hangout, complete with a stunning Puget Sound view.

La Rustica is guarded by an army of fans. When we arrive on a Friday without having made reservations, we can't even get near the door. On a weeknight return, it's less crowded, although the room fills quickly. La Rustica is sure to be even more popular when warmer weather allows al fresco dining in the quiet outside area, located on the side street, away from the busier Beach Drive in front.

Surrounded by rustic colors, plants, dark wood, and little stone arches in the walls that coddle bottles of wine, we feel as if we're in an Italian villa -- or at least we try to. Patricia strikes fashionable drinking postures, and I adopt a more menacing and muscular speaking style, although we both have enough sense to stop before we attempt Italian. I smell the strong scent of Malibu and money here, particularly with the spendy view-homes that provide an opulent backdrop, but Patricia senses a more economically diverse clientele.

Many of our fellow customers are obviously regulars, and our server doesn't quite believe that we are new here, until we're firm about wanting to take a longer look at the menu. Her lack of knowledge about the wines by the glass is disappointing, but perhaps it's her first night on the job. It's not a crime to be a new server, and a responsible diner will go out of his way to make new workers feel at ease. Still, there's no reason to substitute guesses for facts, like the name of the house wine. When Patricia makes a polite inquiry about the house red, our smiley server just grunts and shrugs, as if to say, "It doesn't really matter," like we had just asked her where she got her shoes. Other customers and workers greet each other warmly, though thankfully no one hugs or speaks showily in Italian, as self-doubting servers often do at more phony establishments like Buca di Beppo.

Patricia finds La Rustica relatively unpretentious, while I insist on adopting a more cynical stance. As opera music plays on the stereo (one server grows increasingly bothered by a CD of grating Italian versions of American pop tunes -- we watch with interest while he swells with edginess until he marches to the CD player and puts on the opera CD), we enjoy the garage-sale depictions of European street scenes on the wall. We wait in anticipation for a meal we hope is as stimulating as the venue.

Swordfish, a special ($21.95), comes with capers (although very few -- perhaps there's a shortage in West Seattle?) and lemons. Here, our opinions diverge, although we're both in accord about the grilled eggplant, asparagus, and carrots on the side, and wish we'd gotten to them before the copious olive oil had. Patricia would prefer that the rigatoni with red sauce wasn't on the plate at all, noting that it tastes like something off an elementary school menu. I agree, but I harbor fonder memories of school lunches, and tear through it. And the swordfish? May we simply point out that the human brain has the uncanny ability to forget trauma.

Tagliatelle (what those Northern Italians call fettuccine) ai funghi (porcini mushrooms, in this case), with sun-dried tomatoes and gorgonzola ($11.95) delivers marvelous simplicity, kissed with the oaken flavor only an upper-class fungal growth can provide. We have found our evening's star, unless you count the appetizer, an under-breaded but otherwise dazzling Bruschetta al Pomodora ($5.95).

La Rustica has been called romantic, authentic, a treasure, and a jewel, although not by us. Still, while we don't recommend everyone hire a bus for immediate transport, it's an interesting and willful little place with mostly low prices and a spunky personality. A possible return, particularly on a sunny summer's eve, may be in the offing.

La Rustica

4100 Beach Drive SW, 932-3020. Tues-Thurs 5-10 pm, Fri-Sat 5-10:30 pm, Sun 5-9:30 pm, closed Mon. Beer and wine. $$.

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up

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