Venue Review: Bella Mia
Downtown San Jose has no shortage of Italian restaurants. Ever since Original Joe's opened on South First Street in 1956, Italian restaurants have dominated dining downtown.
Bella Mia remains one of the most popular after more than a decade in business. When it opened in a 19th-century building on a rundown block of First Street in 1993, it was one of the pioneers of the redeveloping city center. Through succeeding years, the 200-seat restaurant with its 120-seat banquet room has weathered boom and bust cycles, scandal and a change in ownership without losing its loyal following.
On a chilly Friday night recently, the two dining rooms downstairs were full, a couple of parties were occupying the upstairs overflow tables, and people were waiting at the bar. As one friend puts it, Bella Mia is a good ''safe bet'' restaurant. You can count on the food being dependable if not impressive, the service cheerful and efficient. Portions are generous, and prices are moderate.
The setting is charming. Nicely restored brick walls, dark wood trim and an impressive staircase to the upstairs ballroom recall the building's Victorian past. A tiled open kitchen adds drama. In warm weather, outdoor dining is possible on the patio in back.
By now, most diners probably have forgotten the furor over a chef passing off pork as veal that made front page headlines in 2000. That chef departed after admitting to the substitution, without the owner's knowledge, and veal doesn't even appear on the menu anymore. The classic Parmesan and Marsala dishes are made with chicken.
The old-style Italian menu received a makeover when new owners John Murakami and Miles Neal, who is now executive chef, took over in fall 2004. They had run the California Cafe at Valley Fair for 11 years, and the current Bella Mia menu reflects their interest in fresh and seasonal food. Every month, the list of specials changes to reflect ingredients at their peak, such as citrus in January. This month, plans call for asparagus to take center stage.
Still, the Italian influence is strong. Pleasant pasta and pizza dishes are big draws -- lasagne in both meat and vegetarian versions is a bestseller. The wine list includes several Chiantis from the Old Country, including a very nice Santa Cristina sangiovese by the glass ($7.25).
Every dinner starts with a plate of house-made focaccia and a little tub of cheese spread with a hint of cayenne. Our bread had been warmed too long and was dull and dry by the time it arrived at the table.
Among the starters my companions and I sampled, fritto misto ($7.95) could have used more seasoning, but the calamari was tender and the vegetables crisp. Lemony caper aioli, with plenty of garlic, was a welcome addition. Parmesan puffs ($6.95) were buttery little bites of baked dough filled with mascarpone cheese, peppery arugula and pancetta.
Chef Neal's emphasis on ingredients showed in the salads, which were consistently good. Whether it was peppery baby arugula with intense marinated feta ($6.95), spinach with roasted beets and tangy goat cheese ($7.25), or golden apple and Gorgonzola with mixed lettuces and endive ($7.25), the greens were impeccably fresh.
Pizzas are hand tossed and better than you'll find in most pizzerias, yet the thin crust of the simple margherita ($9.95) was not crisp enough and the sliced tomatoes added little flavor. Pasta, which also is handcrafted, was a touch overcooked in linguine and clams ($14.95), which suffered from an excessively acidic white wine sauce.
Entrees range from chicken Parmesan with fresh pasta ($14.95) to grilled salt and pepper filet mignon with garlic mashed potatoes and broccoli ($23.95) and the 24-ounce porterhouse steak ($32.95).
Half a chicken roasted with lemon and herbs ($14.95) boasted nice flavor, although the meat was dry. The best part of the plate was the excellent, garlicky braised spinach with a sharp acid bite. I was pleased to find it was also the accompaniment to the indulgent salmon-stuffed pasta shells in a creamy tomato-Parmesan sauce ($14.95).
If there's one dish that stands out, it's the Chianti-braised lamb shank ($19.95). Big, meaty and falling-off-the-bone tender, it's a luxurious dish with deep wine flavors sitting in a pool of soft polenta heavy with goat cheese. It needs some green on the plate, though, so I'd get the spinach as a side dish ($2.95) next time.
Dessert offerings hit all the bases, from the Chocolate Nemesis ($6.25) -- a layer of chocolate mousse atop a slice of chocolate cake with a dark chocolate glaze -- to the affogato ($6.95), pairing a shot of espresso with vanilla gelato.
The warm brownie with vanilla gelato and caramel sauce ($6.25) sounded wonderful but was disappointing with a woefully undercooked brownie and grainy sauce. Most satisfying after a big meal was the homey apple crisp served hot with a scoop of gelato melting on top.