The following are Restaurant Critiques of Bella’s in Charlottesville by two of the lovely ladies from the writing group with whom I met last week. They both attended the same night and sat at the same table. The first review is from “Fiona” and the second is from “M”.
Bella’s – Una Critica
I have often driven past Bella’s on West Main Street and felt envious seeing groups of friends and families inside the windows, backlit with an inviting warm glow. The people were always laughing and, I imagined, stuffing themselves with mounds of al dente pasta in thick red sauce. Part of my envy was because I live alone, and rarely eat with large groups of laughing people.
So when I finally arranged to experience Bella’s with my writing club friends, I couldn’t wait to get started! I love all things Italian, or even half-Italian. I love olives and bright ceramic tiles, fresh vegetables and Madonna statues, crusty bread and horizontally-striped granite buildings. I dramatically swung open the heavy wood and iron door and surveyed the scene: pleasantly spaced tables with crisp white cloths, each with a red votive-like candleholder; waiters dressed all in black; and a smiling hostess in a black and white dress. She showed me to a six-top against the wall, where my friends were already drinking red wine.
The warm glow I remembered came from the terra cotta walls illuminated with quiet hanging lamps. Sepia photos of Italian people and scenes lined the walls. A dark wood bar with round leather stools was empty, but looked inviting. To the rear was an open, unpretentious-looking kitchen. There were no flowers on the tables, and I don’t recall music playing. But everything was neat, clean, and restrained in design. Clearly, the restaurant was intended to evoke a simple, home-like dining experience, where the people are happy to be eating with each other, and the food is the center of attention.
I chose a glass of Chianti from the very brief wine list, and soon caught up with my friends. My friend Mary, a professional writer, explained what she takes notice of when she writes a restaurant review. I had already observed the ambiance, and decided what the restaurant was trying to say. It was 6 p.m. and four other tables were filled. But by 7 p.m. there was only one empty table on a Monday night. Using Mary’s list of cues, here is what else I observed about Bella’s:
The service was adequate, but unremarkable. The small-to-moderate-sized menu was laminated on one page, with beverages and desserts listed on the back. Not aesthetically great, but it contained an interesting variety of Italian foods with no burgers or chicken fingers. Every dish was offered in two sizes. We wisely opted to divide the smaller servings, so we each got a taste of several items. I wished the menu to be printed on thick, sensual paper, and I would have enjoyed a longer wine list. But, on the plus side, they offered my absolute favorite, arancini, and (in case someone actually wanted it) gluten-free pasta!
I understand that food preferences are subjective, but take my word that the arancini was delizioso; the insalata caprese was beautifully and irresistably presented; the gorgonzola grilled salad was a soggy mess. The ragu Bolognese sauce was perfectly seasoned and satisfying, with chewy-good pappardelle noodles. I finished off the platter! The variety of seafood in the zuppa di pesce was surprisingly well-prepared and tasty, with shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari and swordfish. I so wished I could order a basket of crusty bread with green-hued olive oil, and a side of olives or roasted peppers. Our waiter did not even offer fresh pepper or grated parmesean. But, all in all, the food was good! I would go back and definitely try a Negroni, some broccoli rabe, and the cheesecake. And next time, I’ll pretend I’m at a relative’s house and won’t be shy about making requests!
We got to Bella’s early, were greeted warmly, and invited to sit at our table or at the bar. The bartender suggested a Pinot Noir, at a great happy hour price. Nice – the wine and the price!
Bella’s presents comfort and formality at once. Warm colors, friendly servers, crisp white linens, and candles. Good start.
The menu requires explanation. If it is family style, what do “big” and “small” mean? We decided on an appetizer, Arancini – herbed fresh mozzarella, coated with lemon risotto and fried – and a small Gorgonzola Grilled Salad, and two small entreés – Zuppa Di Pesce (isn’t the name great?) and a Ragu Bolognese, for four of us.
The grilled factor of the salad added a little otherness to the first crunch. But then about five flavors battled for my attention and made me feel delightfully stoned. I don’t usually get that excited about salads! The lemon Arancini balls tasted decadent – I’m happy Virginia restaurants don’t have to post the calories yet.
The problem I encountered serving up the Ragu Bolognese was a minor annoyance – The noodles were so long that I could not do this with even a modicum of grace, and therefore little red splatters of tomato sauce decorated my area for the remainder of the meal. Small price, as the homemade fettuccini was wonderful – hearty and delicious. For the Ragu, we bowed to the dietary constraints of one of our group and got the gluten free pasta. Great that Bella’s has something for the gluten free world – and others at the table said they were good for gluten free – but they were glaringly bland, in contrast to the homemade fettuccini.
I am usually drawn to the seafood dishes, and the seafood was fine. But the sauce of the Ragu Bolognese, made with veal and pork and vegetables… that makes my mouth water even as I write this. Fresh tomato taste, and a deep savory kick without being overwhelming. Warm and real. I’d like to sneak back in and get the fettuccini with more of that sauce. With the salad. Oh… and an Arancini.