In Portland, you can look through the window of a restaurant and know if it's any good. Pambiche is constantly overflowing with people, at the Delta you have to wait a half-hour during the week, and La Bonita always has at least a few tables filled. One of my friends thinks this is because Portlanders are lazy and revert to the old standby no matter what, but I disagree. I think most Portlanders know what they're eating. At least, that's the conclusion I came to after I heard the fellow diners at TJ Bistro telling the waitress, "This just isn't how you make a salad!" which is what I was thinking exactly as I was picking over my own. And alas, TJ's stays empty, and its superior Alberta counterparts, Bernie's and Thai Noon, both stay full. Thus, Portlanders must know something.

So when I walked into La Bella Nonna, a new Latin American Restaurant (with an Italian-sounding name) on SE 12th, I was worried. Seven o'clock and only two other tables occupied. After looking at the menu, I knew why. My companion, equipped with a heightened sense of intuition, eyed the menu for two minutes, then suggested we get an appetizer and leave. No, I protested, La Bella Nonna deserves a shot.

Even though the menu was loaded with confusing fusion foods, including tempura, calamari, veggie enchiladas sprinkled with Feta, and a bay shrimp sandwich (remember, the sign says LATIN AMERICAN), I hoped that these people knew something I didn't.

When the salads came out, the hoping came to a halt. Iceberg lettuce with two giant slices of red onion swimming in a soup of Italian dressing. Then came the focaccia bread. Not only do I hate focaccia anyway, but this is a Latin American restaurant. Shouldn't there be chips and salsa? I wondered for a moment if my interpretation of Latin America had thus far been wrong. Was Italy actually in Latin America?

Out of fear, my dining partner wanted to order the innocuous veggie burger, but I forced him to order the rib-eye. Advertised with Spanish rice and a host of steak toppings too confusing to actually register, the steak came out with wild rice, a side of frozen veggies, and the meat itself slathered in salami, cheese, and a brown salty sauce. The meat was tender, but undercooked and so completely masked that the taste was indiscernible. In addition, everything on the plate seemed to be sprinkled with some sort of dried spice medley that contained most of all, rosemary.

My own seafood fettuccine dish was similarly dusted with an overwhelming amount of little rosemary sticks, and came with a sauce labeled "a pepper infusion." It was more a strange-tasting tomato sauce that was ladled on, hosting off-tasting mussels and clams, chunks of salmon and whitefish, and the occasional scallop. Oh how I love seafood, and oh how I didn't love this.

As is the case with the TJ Bistro, it seems like La Bella Nonna suffers from the amateur syndrome. Not everyone can put together a delicious plate of food, and very few people can run a successful restaurant; especially people who don't seem to know the first thing about the subtlety of cooking. More than anything, each of La Bella Nonna's dishes seems like it was dreamed up by a raving stoner, which is fine for a stoner, but unacceptable for $15 a plate.