When I was in high school, the space that houses Bella Vita was home to a TGI Friday's. Some of you no doubt remember it. Friday's was a frequent destination for my group of friends, and I always ordered the same thing: fettuccine Alfredo and a vanilla Coke. I was young and ignorant of many things: cholesterol, for one, and politics, for another.
It drove one of my friends absolutely crazy that I always ordered the same thing. The black sheep of our crowd, she was a vocal Republican who worshiped Bob Dole and Dan Quayle like they were straight out of Tiger Beat. (Really!) Her fascination with political celebrity was viewed with affectionate amusement, the only possible reaction given that none of us (including her) knew much about real life or how politicians' actions really shape our lives.
I thought of my friend when I walked into Bella Vita last week. Its last incarnation was as an outpost of booty-cuisine purveyor Tilted Kilt, but I hadn't been there since it was Friday's. The space is inviting and warm: light beige stone and dark wood, low lighting and high-walled banquettes. Attractive and inoffensive, like the Parade of Homes. The raised center of the restaurant is home to a granite bar and a couple of televisions - but only a couple, in a refreshing change from what seems to be the new restaurant décor of a TV every 20 feet.
Maybe it's the location's history or maybe it's the noncommittal all-neutral décor, but I was rather curious to see what the quality of the food would be. The menu is huge (often a cause for alarm) and mostly Italian, with enough surprises thrown in to make it possible for every member of a varied group to find something that appeals.
Happily, Bella Vita delivered in about every way a restaurant can. The food and the service have personality, and nearly every item I've tried from that large menu has been well executed and delicious.
I felt compelled to order my old TGI Friday's standard, the fettuccine Alfredo. Eating it, I recalled why I would have ordered this dish regularly when I had the metabolic impunity to do so. Bella Vita's baked ziti, though, was the best I've ever tasted, with Italian sausage and green peppers adding layers of texture, and not weighed down by too much cheese. Pizzas were nearly as good, though I'd have liked a crisper crust.
The sandwiches were especially good. The Cuban is not completely authentic (no Cuban bread), but the pork tenderloin is juicy, layered with pickles, mustard and Havarti. (Eating a whole portion of anything here might kill you, which means the already-reasonable prices are bargains since you can always take home leftovers.) A lunch special, an Italian hero with caramelized onions and melted Havarti, was good for two meals' worth, and a standout from the regular menu is the portabella sandwich, feisty with pesto aioli and given an extra crunch from a Parmesan crisp. The sandwich side of choice is the sweet potato tater tots. You get a big bowl of them, all crisp and sweet-salty, and biting down gives the same pleasant sensation as cracking the caramelized top of a crème brûlée with a spoon.
At lunchtime the sandwich and salad portions of the menu expand to include several wraps and hearty salads, while at dinnertime those sections get pared down to make way for several beef and seafood entrees: a Tuscan filet in chocolate-port sauce, a strip steak, scallops, walleye, swordfish and the like. The dinner menu also includes Italian favorites like chicken Parmesan and piccata and an expanded selection of pastas.
The dessert tray remains equally large at every meal, although it's unlikely you'll need dessert. There is a honey-drizzled fruit tray and a homemade sorbet for those wanting to keep it light, but there is also tiramisu, cannoli, Irish cream cheesecake, peanut butter pie and a number of other choices. The tiramisu and cheesecake were serviceable, but there was no way they could top the tots.
Bella Vita's service deserves a mention. On each visit, the friendly server deftly struck that desirable chord of being there just before you were about to ask for something and letting you enjoy your meal the rest of the time.
Eating at Bella Vita, and watching the events of the last few weeks unfold, I've been thinking a lot about my old friend. I know from the grapevine that she worked for the GOP for a time. If we met for a meal, would we order the same things we've always ordered, and hunch resentfully over our plates at opposite ends of the table? Or would we be able to talk civilly about what's happening right now, and what Wisconsin's future might hold - these things that are so much more important than food?