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Bella Bella

[whitespace] Caffe Bella Napoli
George Sakkestand

Mussel Man: Caffe Bella Napoli's delights include aromatic seafood creations.

Southern Italian warmth meets the fresh foods of California and the results converge at Bella Napoli

By Christina Waters

Accessibly down-to-earth, Caffe Bella Napoli has been a delightful addition to the Santa Cruz neighborhood for the past few years. Dedicated to the cooking of Southern Italy, the tiny trattoria is filled with vintage black-and-white photographs of the Old Country, the Bay of Naples and dramatic Mediterranean landscapes that look just like the central coast of California. An inviting port on a foggy evening, Bella Napoli offered plenty of comfort last week when we took a tiny table and ordered a nice bottle of Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, Campania ($30). This wine--called Tears of Christ (the name is hard to resist)--opened nicely as the meal unfolded.

Listed on a small white chalkboard, evening specials included several fresh seafoods, some veal specialties and an appetizer of luxurious buffalo mozzarella from Naples. Recalling student years in Italy, Jack was charmed by the mural of a clowning Punchinello on the back wall. Only the awkward lighting does this charming restaurant a disservice. Bouncing light up toward the ceiling would be less harsh than the lunchroom lighting that currently exists. A candle on each table might easily add a touch of intimacy.

Our meal began with two fine dishes--mine was a calamari and red potato salad on a bed of crisp baby romaine glistening in a lemony vinaigrette ($4.95 ). Jack was in heaven with slices of tender mozzarella, heirloom yellow and green tomatoes and zest of fresh basil ($9.95 ). The large platter also offered a generous portion of prosciutto--enough for lunch the next day. The mozzarella was a revelation of creaminess. Almost wet, it was sweet beyond anything that Americans ever served on top of pizza. The calamari was tender and delicate, the perfect foil for the firm, infant potatoes. Extravagantly ripe tomatoes, tender potatoes--obviously this kitchen knows how to go to market.

Caffe Bella Napoli

A special featured fresh local halibut topped with olives, capers, garlic and red bell peppers ($15.95). Somehow the intensely flavored topping enhanced the delicate filet without overwhelming it. And we noticed with pleasure that this restaurant isn't afraid to use enough garlic to make the point. A few perfect slices of crisp, roasted potatoes also joined the halibut, along with a beautifully arranged bouquet of tiny carrots interwoven with fresh green beans, like a coral and green tapestry. All in all, quite an accomplishment--visually as well as culinarily--for under $16.

My robust serving of linguine plunged me into an aromatic creation of bay shrimp, gulf prawns and a few Rubenesque sea scallops ($15.95). Fresh parsley dusted everything in authentic Italian style, and the linguine--obviously mere seconds away from its cooking pot--was perfect. There was no way, short of a visitation from Saint Rita herself, that I could have made linguine so perfectly al dente. No way. I have no higher praise for pasta--Caffe Bella Napoli deserves our patronage for its pasta alone.

But clearly there's more here than just divine linguine.

We agreed that a sweet something would make the right close to the lovely meal. Having noticed a melon and prosciutto appetizer, Jack asked our waiter if we could have a portion of gelato with some melon, and sure enough the kitchen was happy to oblige.

In a tall sherbet glass, scoops of "hazelnut" (actually, it was peanut) gelato and another of pale green pistachio gelato arrived ($5). The plate was ringed with slices of fragrant cantaloupe, and a tall cylindrical cookie topped the frozen creams.

Like everything else we sampled, it convinced us that this little dining room is a tasty Mediterranean neighbor.

Caffe Bella Napoli
Address: 503 Water St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 831/426-7401
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-2pm; dinner nightly 5:30-10pm (9:30pm Sun.)
Service: ** 1/2 Very capable, friendly and extremely earnest service makes this café a pleasure to frequent.
Ambiance: ** Unintimidating; the interior would flourish with a few minor adjustments to lighting design.
Cuisine: *** Fine appetizers, seasonal produce and exceptional pastas.
Overall: I really recommend Caffe Bella Napoli-especially to those who adore fine pasta, generous portions and low prices.

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From the September 15-22, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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