THE FOOD OF LOVE

By Anthony Capella. Viking. 310 pp. $21.95 A modern version of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, The Food of Love is a lighthearted and entertaining novel set in the Eternal City, where the scents of wild greens and ripe fruit from farmers' markets rival the bold smells of organ meat emanating from butcher shops.

While sitting at a cafe in Rome's hip Trastevere neighborhood, 28-year-old Tommaso Massi and his friends are gulping ristretti (potent cups of espresso) when they spot a beautiful young woman. She's blond with long legs, and she's carrying a backpack. In short, she's every stereotypical Italian male's dream: an American summer student.

She sits at a table outside, confirming that she's a foreigner, for, in one of Anthony Capella's witty observations of Italian culture, "every Italian knows that to sit down to drink coffee is bad for the digestion and will therefore be penalized by a surcharge costing three times as much as you'd pay [standing] at the bar." Indulging in his weakness for foreign women, Tommaso takes the caffe from the barista, brings it out to her table, then reels off one of his pick-up lines. She smiles and rebuffs him.

As she leaves, Tommaso overhears her tell an Italian friend that she's through with horny, clumsy Italian men and that what she needs is a cook: "That's the thing about chefs. They know how to use their hands." Days later, Tommaso runs into Laura again, this time at a food market as she buys pasta for a dinner she has planned. Remembering the conversation he overheard, he lays out a menu, then gives her his number in case she has questions.

She does, which eventually leads to a date for which Tommaso plans an entire meal at his house. The problem, of course, is that Tommaso is no chef, but a waiter at one of Rome's only four-star restaurants, Templi. Tommaso devises an elaborate scheme that involves his roommate, Bruno, cooking and passing the meal off as Tommaso's.

Bruno is a bashful sous chef at Templi who lacks Tommaso's stunning looks and way with women but who works magic in the kitchen. Out of friendship, Bruno agrees to help Tommaso. He combs the streets of Rome, planning the evening meal -- mushrooms, farm-fresh ricotta and artichokes. Then, in one of the markets in Trastevere, he spots a woman he's seen several times but can't muster the courage to approach. The vision of her is what inspires the meal.

With Bruno hiding in the kitchen, the meal is a success, and at the end of the evening Laura falls hopelessly in love with Tommaso -- and into his bed. But the seduction doesn't end there -- Tommaso convinces Bruno to grill at the beach. When the two men pick up Laura, Bruno's heart jumps when he sees her -- the woman from the market -- then sinks when he realizes that she is the woman he's been anonymously cooking for. But he follows through with the plan, creating another delectable meal under the guise of pretending to "learn" from Tommaso how to cook. Capella's love and knowledge of Roman dishes is apparent in his metaphors of food as love -- and sex -- as he describes the cooking of cicale (a "cross between a large prawn and a small lobster") over an open fire: "When you have pulled them from the embers with your fingers, you spread the charred, butterfly-shaped shell open and guzzle the meat col bacio -- 'with a kiss.' "

The improbable plot evolves to where Bruno and Tommaso, still in reversed roles, open a restaurant. But Bruno's interest in the restaurant wanes, as does Tommaso's interest in Laura, who catches Tommaso in bed with another foreign student. As characters, Laura and Tommaso lack gravitas; it's Bruno, in Capella's hands, who evolves more completely. He quits the restaurant and travels throughout Italy, trying to rekindle his passion for food. But he cannot develop an appetite -- that is, until his van breaks down outside a tiny village where he meets Benedetta, the striking daughter of a restaurant owner. Benedetta's knowledge of true rustic cooking rivals Bruno's highly trained skills and forces him to focus on the food he loves, Italy's peasant cooking. In the kitchen they alternately argue and compliment each other, all the while creating aphrodisiac dishes for one another. The passionate Benedetta, much more complex and deep than Laura, appears to be Bruno's soul mate, so it's hard to understand why he would ever consider returning to Laura, but she still has a hold on his heart.

In this first novel, Anthony Capella has created an enjoyable though predictable narrative. But predictability is not always bad -- reading the book is like going to your favorite Roman trattoria while on vacation. You know ahead of time how the spaghetti carbonara will taste, but you will nevertheless revel in the sensation as each ingredient warms your palate and leaves you satisfied. *

Mark Rotella is the author of "Stolen Figs: And Other Adventures in Calabria."