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Photograph by Nikki Bowen
Singular Experience: Bella Roma's braised lamb shank with fine vegetable sauce

Restaurant review: Bella Roma

Capitola's charming Italian restaurant delivers delight

By Denise Vivar

I grew up in a large family, so I know firsthand the pluses of being part of a tribal unit, as well as the obvious drawbacks. For my part, I don't miss lying in bed with an upper bunk hovering over me, or the fight for time in the bathroom or on the telephone. I have, however, had some difficulty getting used to eating by myself, even after all these years.

My father was a chef, and food played a central role in our lives. Eating was something we always did together, and what events those dinners were. While my friends always had to ask permission to invite someone to dinner, it went without saying in our house that everyone was always welcome, and hence we often had an extra guest or two at the table. Eating alone is the one major drawback to living alone that I can single out, no pun intended, and short of a quick run through a taco bar or sandwich deli, I tend to avoid eating out alone.

So what was I doing at Bella Roma Cafe for dinner, party of one? Testing myself, I suppose. Or carving out a sliver of the alone time that I have otherwise come to cherish. In any case, I was met at the door by Gaetano Balsamo, owner and chef, and graciously offered nearly any open seat in the house, not ferreted away to some dark corner between the broom closet and the bathroom. Leaving the outer dining room to the couples and more traditional dining scenarios, I chose a cozy seat in the inner sanctum of the cafe where I could feel a part of the action in the kitchen and the bar.

From the appetizer list I chose the bocconcini melanzane ($10.25) and was cautioned that the dish could take up to 35 minutes to bake. Proudly embracing my solitude, I accepted this extension of my excursion and was almost disappointed when not 13 minutes later a trio of mozzarella-stuffed eggplant slices appeared before me. Of course I was quickly placated by my first bite, a tender eggplant cocoon pregnant with a voluptuous ricotta-mozzarella filling in a crock under a steaming blanket of tomato sauce. When my waiter served another piece to me I hesitated but couldn't resist.

Soon after I waved the white flag over the appetizer, the grilled California sea bass ($21.95) was spirited to my table. A generous fillet was covered in a rich and savory Mediterranean-style sauce of tomatoes, Kalamata olives and capers. The dense white flesh of the fillet was flaky and grilled to perfection. Another bundle of eggplant also graced the plate, this time filled with rice. And sitting squarely on the side was a special treat the size of a large postage stamp: a dense jewel box of au gratin potatoes. I enjoyed one heavenly bite, hit my cheese quotient for the time being and moved on to the vegetables. At a point in the summer when I thought I could not eat one more zucchini, I was pleasantly surprised to find the spears of sautéed squash and carrot remarkably tasty. Perhaps it was the judicious measure of garlic sprinkled over the top, the color, the counterpoint to all the rich cheese or the measure of solitude with which I had to enjoy them. Who knows what magic transpired?

I do know that without the element of entertainment from a dining companion I was more alone with my thoughts and had more time to focus on what I was eating. I enjoyed more conversation with the friendly staff than I might otherwise have and felt utterly comfortable flying solo in the dining room. With my spirits buoyed, I decided to celebrate with a slice of the orange ricotta torte ($8).

Somehow this didn't seem like yet another helping of cheese, so dense and firm was this cake. The ricotta had a bright citrus infusion and was speckled with diced candied lemon and orange. A small tease of sublime raspberry coulis was drizzled over the torte, while cocoa and confectioner's sugar dusted the plate. To finish, a dark chocolate sauce zipped about the whole thing. This combination of cream, citrus, chocolate and raspberry is utterly fabulous.

Molto grazie, Bella Roma, for a romantic evening for one. I believe I will be taking myself out to eat more often.

Bella Roma Cafe

Address: 316 Capitola Road, Capitola

Phone: 831.464.2608

Hours: Open Tue-Sun 5-10pm

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