Every once in a while, I am invited to join my mum and her gaggle of girl friends for an evening of good food and conversation. On this particular occasion, that they had chosen Baldwin Street's version of Bella Italia as the base for their natter n' nosh-up; an establishment at the source of many happy memories given that, over the years, it has facilitated a number of special family get-togethers, (which I’m sure it will become necessary for me to allude to in due course). As such, I was more than happy to join them for an evening of tasty Italian fare and maybe even on my part, a nostalgic glimpse of good times past ...
Date and Time: Tuesday 24th January 2012, 20:00
Name of Establishment: Bella Italia*
Location: 8-10 Baldwin Street, Bristol
Reason for Visit: 'Tarts' Night Out, (their words, not mine...!)
Although this popular Italian chain occupies a number of spaces in and around our fair City (with outlets in both Cabot Circus and 'The Venue' at Cribbs Causeway), its Baldwin Street branch seems to encompass a little more in the way of authenticity - perhaps due to its street-side charm or its intimately arranged and invitingly candlelit surroundings which, on a smaller scale to its rather more commercially situated counterparts, is comparably 'busy' in terms of its décor and yet a little less 'in your face', (if that makes sense?!) Thus, the attributes of a traditional 'trattoria' (which 'Bella' often tries too hard to adhere to) are ever-present and yet achieved, on the large part, with a degree of subtle sophistication. That is, minus the sizeable map of Italy detailed, in all its patriotic glory, on one of the richly-coloured walls...I'm sure the aim was to eradicate any ambiguity that may have existed beforehand in regards to the identity of the space, (if, for instance, you have just been hatched!) but it really isn't necessary and, if we're going to be really picky, it even proves a little patronising! That said, with an upbeat soundtrack overhead and a good helping of friendly, efficient service, our party of five soon settled in to enjoy the evening at hand...
We were lucky enough to have acquired a print-out, courtesy of 'Voucher Codes'*, that entitled us to main courses on a buy-one-get-one-free basis; an offer which our server encouraged us to take full advantage of; persuading us to order a sixth dish to share between us, (or to take home, depending on how full-up we all fared). Whilst we were waiting for our main courses to make an entrance, (as starters had been shunned in favour of making room the extra pizza we had opted for), I sipped at a crisp-noted Pinot Grigio. Offered at the mid-point of the typical chain restaurant drink pricing structure, my 'vini bianchi' was decidedly average – in fact, with Peroni on tap alongside all the usual suspects, there is nothing particularly notable about the line-up of predominantly Italian themed beverages on offer here and yet, nothing especially offensive either!
Moving onto the cuisine and the range of pizza 'n pasta favourites that graced our table – for me, the Carne Mista (£9.25); a pizza comprising a feast of Italian meats – spicy pepperoni, salami, chunky ham and smoked pancetta. This was both rich and satisfying and yet, us pizza devotees did agree that the bases, although advertised as 'thin and crisp', were ever so slightly soggy – a shame as it was otherwise noted that the toppings were of a good quality, fresh-tasting and amply portioned. One member of the group opted for the Melanzane alla Parmigiana (£8.95); a flavoursome arrangement of aubergine which had been layered with béchamel, slow-roasted tomato, basil and thyme sauce as well as cooling mozzarella. Despite the initial niggle that its topping appeared a little burnt, this wholesome, oven-baked fare was described as 'incredibility tasty' by its recipient. Furthermore, pairing the substantial content of this dish with a generously plated baby gem salad brought about a delicious contrast; the splash of lemon oil that featured here proving somewhat palate-cleansing given its citrus zing. Evident by the menu itself, Bella Italia clearly strives to offer a bona fide dining experience whereby its influences are determined in regards to specific Italian regions and its main attractions are paired with a suitable vino from the aforementioned line-up. Despite the broad range of dishes on offer, the menu has obviously been thoughtfully arranged and if, unlike me, you tantalise your taste buds with something a little more off the beaten track, (as opposed to jumping straight to the pizza options, salivating at the mere thought of the imminent carb-fest), you wont be disappointed - the Conchiglioni di Mare (£9..85), for example certainly appealed; giant egg pasta shells filled with cod, prawns, mascarpone and lemon zest in a creamy saffron sauce with baby spinach – yum!
|Melanzane alla Parmigiana|
Onto dessert and although I've been duly informed that 'Bella' serve up a blimmin' good Tiramisu, I soothed my notorious sweet tooth with the Cookie Dough Lava Cake (£5.25); an extremely gluttonous pud constituting...yep you guessed it...warm cookie dough which, packed with melting chocolate chips and topped with a good-quality vanilla 'gelati' and a drizzle of caramel sauce was rather sickly but for me, a winning combination that would definitely warrant a return visit.
|A whole lotta yum...!|
In conclusion, a lovely evening all round – I guess that the sentimental connections I have to this establishment, whereby it would often function as the starting point for the theatre outings I took as a child with very special members of my family, will always hold it dear to me. Yet, there is definitely something a little less mainstream about this branch of Bella Italia; be it the old-school building which it has occupied for so many years (previously Bella Pasta if you can remember back that far), its vantage point for people-watching given its atmospheric road-side location or perhaps its cosily arranged interior. Whatever the case may be, there is no doubt that there is something setting it above its counterparts and with the reliability factor in its favour given its reputation for classic Italian cuisine, not to mention the numerous money-saving opportunities to take advantage of, this venue seems to tick all the boxes when it comes to an enjoyable, yet reasonable night out.
And now for the second opinion...
My lovely mum gave Bella Italia a rating of 8/10 and in three words summed up her experience as; 'always reliable fare'.