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Bellissima Roma

[whitespace] Bella Roma
Edmund Lee

Bella the Ball: Bella Roma Caffe chef/entrepreneur Gaetano Balsamo perfects Italian dining with Mediterranean masterpieces.

Capitola's Bella Roma Caffe brings an elegant trattoria ambiance into the heart of the Village-by-the-Sea

By Christina Waters

THERE SHOULD BE a Bella Roma on every corner of every neighborhood in the county. It has the whole Mediterranean package down without feeling the least bit impersonal or overly designed. The atmosphere is so deliciously romantic in this pretty trattoria-- completely made-over from its funky days as Tony's Cafe des Arts--that my longtime Capitola-devotée buddy Di and I were glad we'd dressed up a bit.

On busy evenings, Bella Roma can become distinctly noisy, and on the evening we dined, the sheer volume of conversations bouncing off the gorgeous tile floors and terracotta walls created a lively din. The impossibly dreamy voice of Italian pop star Andrea Bocelli was soaring up through the conversation--as robust an ambiance as the food itself. We loved it.

Chef/entrepreneur Gaetano Balsamo made a name and a following for himself with his previous culinary venture, Cafe Michaelangelo. And sure enough, the Bella Roma menu exudes Balsamo's devotion to authentic flavor possibilities. Lots of roasted poultry and seafood, luxurious countryside pasta specialties and a large variety of antipasti.

A bottle of locally crafted Martin Ray 1995 Pinot Noir ($32), turned out to be a terrific partner for all the flavors to come. The European pacing of our courses--which can be gloriously relaxed or overly lengthy depending on your perspective--helped stimulate one of our finest conversations in many years.

Appetizers of insalata caprese and another of grilled vegetable antipasti (both $5.25) added to our enjoyment. The caprese involved the traditional slices of creamy mozzarella atop fresh basil and ripe tomatoes. The grilled vegetable platter--lots of peppers with capers in olive oil, artichoke hearts, slices of golden zucchini and eggplant--offered superb bruschetta, warm from the oven, very garlic-intensive and liberally topped with perfect ripe tomatoes and plenty of chopped basil. I could have made an entire meal simply of this.

Our entrees further showcased the elegant pinot noir. I'd chosen the house pappardelle bosco mare ($13.95), impeccably sauced with tiny bay shrimp and a broth of fresh and dried porcini mushrooms that was hauntingly earthy, really voluptuous in both texture and flavor. Everything was authentically topped with plenty of fresh Italian parsley.

Di's entree was an evening special of grilled pork tenderloin ($15.95) that arrived blanketed with chopped fresh tomatoes, capers, some olives and more of the fresh parsley. It created the effect of a perfectly balanced puttanesca sauce on simply prepared, delicious tenderloin. The pork arrived moist and medium rare, accompanied by a generous floret of grilled cauliflower, some broccoli and grilled polenta.

"They haven't missed a move," Di murmured, admiring the flavor flirtation between the excellent pork and the plummy pinot. "And they haven't struck out with a single item." She was so right.

Dessert of excellent coffee and an unpretentious slab of ultra-creamy, coffee-dusted tiramisu finished us off. "It's wonderful--as wonderful as anything can be that's not chocolate," Di observed.

Our dinner at Bella Roma was wonderful, and chef Gaetano came out to see how everything was. Heads nodded in approval throughout the dining room.

Bella Roma is a winner.

Bella Roma Caffe
Address: 316 Capitola Ave., Capitola
Phone: 831/464-2608
Hours: Dinner nightly from 5 to 10pm
Chef: Gaetano Balsamo
Ambiance: *** Vivacious, smart and very warm.
Service: ** Incredibly charming attention from skilled waiters who can become overloaded with tables on busy evenings.
Cuisine: *** Excellent menu of authentic Italian classics beautifully executed with flair and confidence.

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From the August 13-19, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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