Cafe Society

Happy ending: Bella Bistro in Arvada is a welcoming neighborhood spot

My spoon lay face-down next to the melted remnants of the watermelon-mint granita, a soft, sweet reminder of the glory of summer produce infused into a dessert with an airy texture that resembled snow. My espresso cup was as empty as my granita glass. The check had been paid, the conversation had halted. It was time for the evening to end, but I couldn't tear myself from my seat. Because for the past five minutes, I'd been watching a fat black spider gracefully weave a silver web the size of a bicycle wheel between two of the posts that rise up from the railings to enclose Bella Bistro's patio. Under the glittering strands of the lights overhead, with soft vocal jazz echoing in the peaceful dusk, it was a storybook ending to my three-hour meal, and I wasn't quite ready for the short culinary vacation to end.

That was a Tuesday, when a single waiter was enough to provide perfectly timed service to the half-full patio and dining room at Bella Bistro. On the following Saturday, even that spider would have had difficulty maneuvering the space, which was so full of people I practically had to sit in my companion's lap to avoid getting smacked in the head by a pitcher of water. Waiters moved at a frenzied pace, tucking in their elbows to awkwardly shimmy through narrow pathways between tables. The chefs, on stage beneath the bright lights and before the black-and-white tiled walls of the open kitchen, moved rapidly from stove to oven, barely escaping collisions as they crossed paths. The jazz (or whatever soundtrack the restaurant had in mind that night) was inaudible in the din of the lively crowd, and there was no lingering over espresso. Infected by Bella Bistro's energy, we were keen to socialize over an after-dinner drink in another spot. Except that we were in Arvada, where few such spots exist.

When chef-owner Shelly Steinhaus opened the doors to this converted 1950s Texaco gas station three years ago, she envisioned a neighborhood restaurant with a coterie of regulars, people who found reason to grace her tables several nights a week. To accommodate those regulars, she wound up creating an eatery that adapts to its crowd like a chameleon as the week progresses, with the more casual pace of Tuesday slowly building to the revelry that defines the weekend.

Steinhaus and her sous chef, Chris Wray, accentuate the dichotomy between the Bella Bistro of the week and the Bella Bistro of the weekend by changing the menu twice over the course of the five nights the spot is open. Tuesday through Thursday, it lists simpler fare: a handful of pizzas and pastas follow the appetizers and large, fresh salads. On weekends, the team ups the ante, replacing pizzas with hearty entrees and serving much more complicated dishes.

A masterful understanding of seasonality runs through both menus, reflecting Steinhaus's culinary training. Since earning a degree from the Culinary School of the Rockies, she's continued her education by forging relationships with winemakers in Italy and traveling to that country to work in their family restaurants. Through those connections, she's learned regional secrets from mothers and grandmothers in Puglia, Sicily and Piedmont, then brought their wine, their recipes and their techniques back to Arvada. She also employs an Italian mindset to find producers, building up relationships with small farms and wineries rather than working with big businesses. She credits the success of her restaurant to those relationships.

They certainly paid off with the wine list, which features 65 interesting Italian bottles about which the staff can tell detailed personal stories. And they also paid off with Steinhaus's food. Other than a solitary chunk of watermelon, every scrap of produce I was served at Bella Bistro was excellent — not just because it came from good farmers at a good time of the year, but because Steinhaus and her kitchen showed restraint in featuring it. They allowed the produce to shine, using just salt or olive oil or maybe a couple of balancing elements as foils for fruits and vegetables that really needed no further help.

The burrata cheese was an oozing sphere with a thin, firm mozzarella shell barely strapping in the soft, creamy mascarpone center, brushed with olive oil and served with crunchy toast, fresh leaves of arugula and three slices of heirloom tomato at the peak of ripeness — a simple appetizer lifted to exquisite by the juicy bite of late summer. Two steamed artichokes were ideally augmented by just a dusting of salt and a lemon aioli. And in an appetizer all too often ruined by underripe fruit, two wedges of candy-like cantaloupe were plated with salty prosciutto.

The salads were composed just as thoughtfully as the starters. One brought together sweet honeydew and watermelon, field greens, spicy banana peppers and salty ricotta salata beneath a light coating of balsamic vinaigrette. Normally I stop at a couple bites of salad, but this blend enticed me to finish the whole thing. I was equally enamored of a version that had plump, earthy sweet figs harmonizing with hazelnuts and pungent Gorgonzola over the same field greens, with a brachetto red-wine vinaigrette topping it all.

At my weekday meals, pizza was the standout entree option. The thin, crisp crust with airy black bubbles could be topped by everything from sausage to chicken to seafood, each paired with available produce. One version put succulent chunks of red and white lobster atop soft arugula pesto, doused with creamy mascarpone cheese and just a touch of truffle oil, used in such moderation that it served to accentuate the earthiness of the arugula rather than impart overwhelming flavor to the dish. The margherita pie, a staple, was much more simple but just as impressive, with a sauce made from rich San Marzano tomatoes and topped with housemade mozzarella and fresh leaves of basil.

The housemade pastas were also a treat. A nest of long, flat noodles soaked up the tomato broth that bathed glittering black mussels. Cylindrical gnocchi came mixed with braised fennel and fresh tomatoes one night, earthy porcini mushrooms another.

If they'd been offered again, I might have skipped the weekend entrees altogether — and thus avoided some disappointing dishes. Except for the overpricing, though, I blame any problems on the pressure of a packed venue rather than a lack of skill in the kitchen. The braised lamb ribs were tender, but charred after being left in the oven too long. The duck breast was slightly overcooked and chewy, though the accompanying roasted beets and celeriac, glazed with cider, were delicious enough to redeem the plate. And while the prawn risotto displayed a nice balance of flavor, pairing delicate baby squash with smoky roasted bell pepper, the risotto was starchy from spending too much time in the pot. Each of these dishes was slightly under-seasoned, too, which wouldn't have been a problem if Bella Bistro set a table with salt and pepper.

But at least my Saturday meal ended on a high note. More than one, actually: vanilla gelato coated in honey and more sweet figs, a sweet-and-sour lemon tart with a few blueberries, that watermelon-mint granita. It didn't matter that I'd stuffed myself during dinner: I was ready to lick the glass for the last traces of that sweet.

Despite any bumps encountered along the way, every meal here ended well. With Bella Bistro, Steinhaus has created exactly the neighborhood spot she hoped to create, one that makes you want to be part of this neighborhood any day of the week.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk

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