Bella-Mia goes back to basics


POSTED: Wednesday, December 02, 2009

I was excited to hear about two new entries on the Italian scene in Kaimuki, but when I started asking friends who frequent the area if they'd tried the restaurants, the feedback was not encouraging. Of the two, Bella-Mia got better reviews, but not by much.

It was always a tepid, “;Eh, so-so,”; to a definite “;I didn't care for it.”;

“;But why?”; was my question. Alas, when it comes to food, it's one so few can ever answer. People like what they like, or they don't.

By then, of course, the question was moot. Having thought of pasta, the idea of noodles was stuck in my noggin, and once I get a craving, there can only be one outcome, total satiation. So I had to check out the situation firsthand.

It helps to be forewarned about what the experience will be like. It will do no good in this case to go in expecting Mario Batali-style fare when Bella-Mia specializes in a taste of Italy one borough over, Brooklyn style. Right then and there, a third of readers will drop out of the picture, a third will be indifferent and a third will cheer.

This is not food I would normally seek out, but there will always be an audience for the kind of simple, classic fare served here, which might be described as Italian 101 or Italian for Beginners. That, and price points of less than $9 for large plates of pasta, might explain why the restaurant draws so many families.





11th Avenue Atrium (behind Big City Diner, Kaimuki) » 737-1937


Food ;*;*;1/2
        Service ;*;*;*
        Ambience ;*;*;1/2
        Value ;*;*;*
        Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily Cost: $25 to $35 for two; BYOB


Ratings compare similar restaurants:
        ;*;*;*;* - excellent
        ;*;*;* - very good
        ;*;* - average
        ;* - below average.




There's nothing more kid-friendly than spaghetti and meat sauce ($7.95) or spaghetti and meatballs ($8.75), though if you have a young child, I'd recommend sharing the plate. It's a lot of food. Even with three meatballs on the latter dish, they're about double the size of a golf ball, so more substantial than you'd imagine at first glance. It's a dish I'd be happy to order again, and the price is right.

As befitting the basics, the decor is “;Lady and the Tramp”; retro with the requisite red-and-white-checked tablecloths in the cozy, hole-in-the-wall space on the ground floor of the 11th Avenue Atrium. All that's missing are the Chianti bottle candleholders.

The intimate setting makes it easy to see what's arriving at the tables, and you'll likely encounter a sea of red, starting with the marinara that accompanies complimentary dinner rolls. It makes ordering more bread redundant, but the appetizer choices include garlic bread ($2.50) and garlic bread with cheese ($3.25).

Bruschetta is just as easy to prepare, but there's zero desire to be the least bit contemporary. It would surprise any tourist wandering in to learn the restaurant is new when the menu and food suggest grandfather status. It feels as if it's been here for 60 years.

YOU CAN determine a lot about a restaurant by its antipasti, typically a point of pride, demonstrating a sense of hospitality and creativity, so I started with that ($8.95). Instead of an expected mix of savory meats, cheeses, fruit and tapas, this is a basic lettuce salad.

The only differences between this and the Greek salad were the Parmesan instead of feta cheese, the addition of red bell pepper slices on the Greek version and thin rolls of ham and cheese on top of the antipasti salad. If I had known they were essentially the same salad, I would not have ordered both.

Watching the plates go by, I saw a lot of runny, watery pastas, so opted for the heavier dishes of veal parmesan ($18.95) and chicken marsala ($13.95). All the red dishes tend to be buried under a heavy layer of marinara sauce and cheese, so if you're strapped for cash, you'd probably do just as well ordering the eggplant parmesan ($11.95). The heavy breading that coats the two large slices of eggplant gives them the consistency of meat without the accompanying guilt. I enjoyed it as much as the veal.

All entrees come with a side of spaghetti, linguine or penne in red sauce. Spa-ghetti and linguine did come out watery and sloshy, so if al dente is your preference, the odds of getting what you want are greater with the penne. On a subsequent visit, when the room was only half full, the spaghetti wasn't as watery, so that probably reflects how much time cooks have to drain the water from the pasta.

I wish I could tell you how the chicken marsala turned out, but I was served the chicken piccata ($13.95) instead. I think that worked out in my favor, though. I imagined the marsala would turn out to be another red blur. With the piccata's white wine and splash of lemon, I felt some relief from tomato overkill. You could also go for variation with the chicken carbonara ($13.95) or fettuccine Alfredo ($9.95).

FOR COUPLES in cost-saving mode, one other option is to create your own pizza. This medium-size pizza starts at $7.50, with toppings running $1.50 per single or $2.50 for two, with choices of pepperoni, sausage, meatballs, bacon, ham, chicken, peppers, garlic, onions, mushrooms, black olives, pineapple, jalapenos, anchovies, tomatoes and spinach.

I chose the classic Italian toppings of pepperoni, mushrooms, anchovies, tomatoes and spinach, which was quite good. I would have preferred fresh spinach to the frozen type that ended up looking like seaweed, but that would be another restaurant.