Cafe Society

WAITING FOR THE DOUGH

We bring our family to a restaurant that bills itself as "family-style" and are promptly told to go to the bar with our child and wait thirty minutes, even though there are twenty empty tables within sight. When we are seated--thankfully only twenty minutes later--no one offers us a high chair, and we have to ask twice before one finally arrives. Then the waiter deigns to drop by, and with an I'm-barely-tolerant-of-kids face proceeds to treat us like our dog just did its business on his lawn. It's clear he doesn't think our kid should be there, even though we clean up every speck of food she throws on the floor and pay $3 for a 15-cent plate of plain noodles.

So much for family.
This is why the chain restaurants that cater to families prosper--despite their inferior food. Because while many locally owned establishments serving superior fare claim they are "family restaurants" or that they offer "family-style dining," the reality is that they don't want you to bring your family, God forbid. They want you to bring a large group of adult people who will suck down a lot of vino and leave enormous tips.

But Dan Shipp, general manager and part-owner of Bella Ristorante, insists that he and his partners--his brother, Mike, along with Matt Fleming and a few Chicago investors--opened the place with the intention of meeting "the area's need for good family-style dining." The Shipp brothers had already met the needs of the college crowd with their Spanky's Roadhouse by the University of Denver; Dan Shipp and Fleming also own Wazoo's, where they meet the needs of Generation Xers who carry plenty of microbrew pocket money. As for Bella, it's right up the road from Wazoo's in a part of LoDo where burgers and beer abound and the Italian restaurants aren't yet as thick as Mama Leone's minestrone.

And that's the beauty of Bella. This vast, converted warehouse with exposed brick and flower arrangements on steroids offers a nice place to have a meal in an area that's starting to feel like an extension of the ballfield. Bella's atmosphere is casual, with red-checked tablecloths and dessert choices neatly written on blackboards; its setup is conducive to raucous birthday parties and co-worker get-togethers. And the food, while not the most innovative or memorable, isn't as bad as I'd heard. In fact, once we got past the kitchen errors, Bella did a buono job of putting out the simpler fare of Italy.

First, though, we had to get past that waiter, whose every move seemed calculated to ruin our meal. It started with the ordering, during which he repeated every word I uttered with a snidely different, sometimes incorrect, pronunciation--I said Mar-sah-la, he said Mar-soh-la--that gave the whole process the feel of a Monty Python skit. He frowned, actually frowned, at our choice of wine from the appealingly priced assemblage of Italian and domestic wines. Maybe he didn't like it that our bottle cost $16. And whenever we asked for anything unusual, such as a fork with which to eat, he took enough time to stitch a quilt before he brought it.

Enough about him: There are others at Bella who also need a kick in the butt. For instance, whoever's in charge of the bruschetta appetizer ($3.25). Three slices of wonderful Italian bread (made on the premises at the in-house Nonna's bakery) were lightly grilled (the name comes from bruscare: to toast), coated with olive oil and topped with diced tomatoes with basil. But an unnamed someone had neglected to take the topping out of the refrigerator--it was so cold it put our teeth into shock, not to mention what it did to the poor tomatoes. Love-apple-loving scientists have determined that the component responsible for tomatoes' taste is destroyed once the fruit drops below 55 degrees, but it certainly doesn't take a college education to figure out that you need to serve some items at above-freezing temperatures.

The other appetizers were better executed, if not much more exciting. A platter of calamari fritti ($6.95) came with half the squid naked--unintentionally, I think--and half dressed in a thin layer of seasoned breadcrumbs. The accompanying tartar sauce, which executive chef Vince Tyler mixes with mashed potatoes, had a weird, pastelike consistency and little pickle power, but the side of marinara was smooth and strong with herbs. Although that sauce's success may have reflected Tyler's experience as a chef at Chicago's Carlucci and his year in Italy, it didn't carry over to the arancini ($5.95). The dish sounded great, but the fried risotto-mozzarella dumplings were strangely dull and tasted as though they'd been sitting in the cooler for a few days--which can't be the case, since Bella does about 600 dinners a night on the weekends and about half that during the week.

Actually, the crowds could be the problem. With more than thirty employees in the kitchen alone--Dan Shipp says they're equipped to do 500 dinners at any given time--something's bound to get lost in the translation. With his background, Tyler clearly knows how to produce excellent food, but it's not all making it out to the table. For example, although that well-melded marinara was supposed to reappear in the cavatappi with grilled chicken and broccoli ($9.95), we had to send in a search party to find the sauce. There was so much pasta that it looked like a bowl of cereal right after the milk's poured in, with plenty of dry stuff spilling out over the sides. Half a breast's worth of tender chicken and a few broccoli buds didn't have a chance against all that macaroni. The Mar-soh-la sauce on the veal ($14.95) was another textbook case, a sweet and rich reduction that used mushrooms to enhance the wine's earthiness and went well with the gently sauteed meat. Still, I was caught off guard when the dish turned out to consist of veal, Marsala sauce and nothing else, not even the almost obligatory stir-fry of steamed summer vegetables. Our waiter had failed to mention that not even a garnish comes with the entrees. Although we had seen the list of side dishes, so many places offer them a la carte these days that it's hard to know what's going on; it would have been helpful if the waiter had given us a clue. Fortunately, the portion of veal was so large that I didn't go hungry. But then, we had also ordered the linguine alla pescatore ($16.95), another generous serving that featured shrimp, mussels, scallops and clams in a spicy tomato-based sauce.

Dessert was almost out of the question considering the quantity of food we'd already consumed, but somehow we convinced ourselves that splitting a bowl of ice cream ($3.50) and tiramisu ($4.25) between the three of us wouldn't be overindulgent. The ice cream, a cappuccino-chocolate chip from Liks, was superb. The tiramisu, however, looked like something you'd throw in someone's face at a carnival. Dan Shipp says they're having trouble getting it out of the pan; I'd say the thing crawled out of the pan on its own and fell on the floor before it made it to the plate. This blob of mascarpone cheese spiked with Bailey's Irish Creme had all the visual appeal of a mound of shaving cream, which was a shame, because there was a nice sweetness to it. Or maybe that was just the way our fingers tasted; our waiter didn't bring any utensils--or the coffee, or an extra napkin we asked for. We did get the check promptly--albeit one listing a few items we hadn't ordered.

On our second visit, I thought I'd stumbled into a different restaurant. The waiter this time was funny, down-to-earth and efficient; of course, he didn't have to contend with my crumb-cruncher. Instead he got my childish friend, one of those waiter-baiters who like to test the server's mettle. Happily, this one was up to the task and proved to be a professional, even when he was called on the carpet for the promised pancetta missing from a sandwich of salmon, cucumber and a caper tartar sauce ($9.95). It turned out that the kitchen had forgotten it, and so the waiter brought out a bowl of just-fried bacon--enough for the sandwiches of everyone around us--with his sincerest apologies. My buddy liked the sandwich better without the pancetta, but I thought the fatty flavor enhanced the fatty fish. Or maybe I just needed something strong to offset my Caesar salad ($4.95), one of those versions that takes anchovies, and flavor, seriously. Too bad the garlic bread ($3.95) didn't follow suit--the garlic was merely wishful thinking on the part of the cook, and the bread itself had a flat, stale quality. But the margherita pizza ($6.95) was worth the dough--a soft, chewy crust crowned with shards of fresh basil and Roma tomatoes under a blanket of melted mozzarella.

We hadn't planned to take on dessert, but the waiter talked us into it: three tiers of baked chocolate meringue ($4.25) glued together with a fluffy raspberry mousse. It was light and sweet, the perfect ending for a lunch, and it showed the kind of thoughtful attention to outcome that Bella should display more often.

With more emphasis on the little details instead of the big numbers, Bella could be a beautiful thing. Until then, though, pretty is as pretty does.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner