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[whitespace] Bella Napoli Photograph by George Sakkestad

Ring Cycle: Chef Giovanni Di Maio knows how to please lovers of Italian food.

Bella Bellissima

The authentic flavors and artistically presented dining experience of Italy reign at Santa Cruz's Bella Napoli

By Christina Waters

A HANDFUL OF small dining rooms seem to offer an instant welcome, as though we had come to exactly the right spot. Caffe Bella Napoli is one--as we rediscovered on several recent visits. Joining lovers of Italian cuisine in search of some warmth and camaraderie, we enjoyed two dinners that confirmed our devotion to this little spot run by gifted cooks from Sorrento.

After a blackboard listing was recited in rich Italian accents, we decided on an evening special of veal scaloppine with porcinis (and an order of gnocchi with marinara sauce). So engaged and engaging was our young waiter, that we felt we'd savored the first act of a Verdi opera simply by listening to our dining possibilities that evening. Glasses of Sicilian Primitivo ($6.50) continued the aria of spice and black velvet, as we toasted a peaceful future in which Italian food would flourish forever.

Arriving at the end of a sensuous tomato season, Bella Napoli's superb caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella flown in from Naples provided instant enchantment ($10.95). Lavishly adorned with aromatic fresh basil, the large succulent slices of moist mozzarella defied analysis. Their soft texture interwoven with the bright tartness of dry-farmed tomatoes made for a seductive starter. To make matters sublime, the kitchen added a few perfect green and black olives, plus a generous portion of lean, delicious prosciutto on the side.

Unbelievable, but then so was another starter of ripe organic cantaloupe, draped with transparent prosciutto and surrounded with black and white figs, each one stuffed with a single raspberry ($9.95).

That evening, we feasted on a classic entree of veal scaloppine, liberally topped with porcini mushrooms and tasting of Europe ($14.95). Accompanying, in true Italian fashion, were roasted potatoes, little carrots, fresh spinach, earthy wax beans, all wonderful and all designed to complement the light, tender veal.

Another entree of exceptional, light gnocchi offered a heady ragu sauce perfumed with pomodori, the depth of long-simmered meats and great culinary skill ($14.95). So generous was the pasta dish that it continued on as lunch the next day.

Last week, we sampled a wonderful pork scaloppine intensely sauced with lemon and capers ($15.96) that revealed the rare consistency of Bella Napoli's skill. One gets the distinct impression that there is no showy performance going on here, rather, the real thing. This cafe exists to serve real food, honestly made.

The sunny yellow walls and vintage photos of the Bay of Naples only add to the charm of Bella Napoli, whose waiters are happy to engage your Italian language skills. Yet it really is about the food. The woman at the next table and I smiled at each other--we'd both been smart enough to order a special of mezzaluna, large half-moon pastas filled with veal and sauced with sage and browned butter, all dusted with pine nuts ($14.95). Oh, it was outrageously good, especially washed down with red wine and Fiuggi aqua minerale poured from a giant blue bottle ($4.50).

Jack's pork scaloppine was on the mark and offered another array of fine vegetable companions, crowned by those irresistible roast potatoes and some soft, sweet fennel. For dessert at our most recent Bella Napoli dinner, we sampled homemade spumoni that was thrillingly restrained. Pistachio, cream and black cherry ice creams in thick pastel bands were joined by a fat mound of whipped cream ($6). The fragile and faintly exotic combination of flavors invariably reminded me of childhood desserts at Italian restaurants.

Delicious too was a very simply assembled, barely sweet layering of tiramisu, a playful monument to chocolate and mascarpone, accented by a dash of liqueur ($6). Bella Napoli in Santa Cruz--a happy Mediterranean marriage.

Caffe Bella Napoli
Phone: 426.7401
Address: 503 Water St, Santa Cruz
Hours: Open Mon-Fri 11:30am-2pm; Sun noon-close; dinner Mon-Sat 5:30pm-close
Chef: Giovanni Di Maio
Ambience: *** Pleasantly nontrendy trattoria atmosphere
Service: *** Charm and backgrounds in authentic Italian cuisine aid the diligent serving staff
Cuisine: *** Excellent classics are prepared with flair and honesty, offered with pride and generosity
Overall: Bella Napoli remains one of the top Italian dining rooms in the area--a little gem that has carved a durable niche with a devoted following

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From the October 10-17, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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