*** Serving traditional Italian grub in modern surroundings, Bella remains a dining hotspot but on this occasion it missed the mark, says Elizabeth Joyce
That first thirst-quenching drink on a Friday evening is the stuff of dreams.
It symbolises freedom, fun and the start of 48 blissful hours away from your desk, driving and deadlines.
So, true to form, I’d fantasied about that first sip of prosecco all day in my windowless hutch of an office.
When the moment finally came, it was cool, it was crisp, it was perfect.
“Finally,” I exhaled. “Now I can relax. The weekend starts here.”
Here was Bella in Wolverhampton, one of the city’s most well-known and best-loved restaurants. The haunt of everyone from Hugh Porter to Mick McCarthy and home to a chef who once found 15 minutes of fame on Come Dine With Me.
But, just as I was about to fully surrender to the weekend’s harmonious hold, it hit me: I’d left my purse at home.
The boyfriend didn’t have his wallet either. Eek.
By this point, after a little while hovering awkwardly at the bar, we were already sat at our table, menus in hand, waiters eyeing us up. In the nicest possible way, of course.
Relaxation began to merge into embarrassment. And then mild panic.
What if they think we’re trying to pull a fast one? What if we’re kicked out on to the street cannelloni and carbonara-less, forever outlawed from crossing their threshold again?
The boyfriend offered to run home and retrieve said purse. It would only take a mere 50 minutes he explained.
Fifty minutes? Is that all? Why, that would fly by dear, sat alone in a bustling restaurant on a Friday night only for you to return a sweaty, huffy puffy mess. Funnily enough, we decided against that plan and instead plumped for a round-trip taxi ride with the added bonus of a cash point stop-off. Hmm, not really the blissed-out evening I was hoping for.
However, the staff couldn’t have been nicer about our self-inflicted predicament. They even took our orders before I left on the mad dash so our food could be whisked out of the kitchen upon my inevitably-flustered return.
There was only one problem here: we didn’t see hide nor hair of the specials menu. It was only when I noticed other tables being given them later on that I realised we had been overlooked. Pity too as Bella is known for its mouthwatering daily specials – the last time I visited they had special steak that blew my mind – so it was a bit disappointing to miss out.
But still, one very quick and un-air conditioned taxi ride later, I was back at the table and all was well in the world.
“Finally,” I exhaled for the second time. “Now I can relax. The weekend starts here.”
It had been a long time coming, but, a grand total of almost an hour after we first stepped through the door, the starters arrived.
I went for the classic caprese salad: Buffalo mozzarella, plum tomato, olives and rocket with a basil oil all for £6.45.
My boyfriend went for the soup of the day – tomato and basil – for £4.95.
My salad was perfect for the bright sunny weather. The mozzarella was plump and soft, the tomatoes full and juicy and the olives and rocket tangy and fresh. It was generous too, easily being one of the biggest caprese salads I’ve had the pleasure of eating.
As for the soup, well that wasn’t as big a success. The flavour was judged to be adequate but he had to ask, and then wait quite a while for bread.
Underwhelming was the overall verdict. But still, what do you expect when you opt for the safe soup bet? There were plenty of other exciting options on the Antipasti menu, such as Lumache Di Campagna (snails flambéd in brandy cooked in garlic butter), Carpaccio Di Manzo (thinly sliced fillet of raw beef, caper berries, rocket, parmesan and horseradish cream) and Duetto Di Carpaccio (fresh tuna and swordfish thinly sliced, marinated aubergine and sundried tomato tapenade).
We were washing it down with tall glasses of Peroni and my single flute of prosecco had been promoted to a bottle. Hey! Don’t judge, I’d had a stressful time.
The drinks were lovely but we had a slight bugbear with the amount of times they were topped up. Barely a single sip had gone before the waiting staff were back to fill us up to the brim. It was overkill. Especially when compared with the previous oversights of the specials menu and bread selection. We’d gone from one extreme to the other.
The main event was next. This is where Bella really comes into its own as the menu is heaving with main course choices.
I opted for the linguine ai frutti di mare (seafood pasta in a cream and Napoli sauce) for the relatively modest, when compared to some of the other main course prices, £13.50.
I’d had the dish on a previous Bella visit and it was a delight then: light, creamy and awash with flavours of the sea including king prawns, mussels and calamari. This time however, it sat a little heavier. This dish didn’t have the same lightness of touch as its predecessor. The prawns and mussels were tasty but the other elements didn’t sing.
I couldn’t finish it. Last time, I wiped the bowl clean. Perhaps the difference between a relatively quiet midweek slot when a chef can really concentrate and a busy Friday night service when the kitchen is working at full pelt?
My boyfriend considered both the pollo alla cacciatora (breast of chicken in a tomato, mushroom, onion, peppers and pancetta sauce) and the Bologna pizza topped with bolognese, pepperoni, mushrooms green chilli and parmesan before going for bistecca alla griglia, or char-grilled fillet of beef, for £18.95. The dish went up to £21.95 if you wanted peppercorn sauce and £22.95 if you wanted gorgonzola and peppercorn sauce.
He had no sauce and, almost inevitably, reported back that the dish was too dry. He’s a “well done” man too, which didn’t exactly help matters.
He wasn’t a huge fan of the chips either, calling them “chip shop chips”. I’m still of the opinion that is no bad thing at all. A side of fresh veggies accompanied and they got the thumbs up. Finally.
After something of a hit-and-miss meal thus far, we were both keen to try the desserts. Best out of three and all that.
All the Italian classics were there: tiramisu, panna cotta, ice cream. However, we were told the specials this time around and both suitably tempted as a result.
I had the chocolate panna cotta, served in a long, elegant glass and topped with a biscotti biscuit. You couldn’t fault it. He had the chocolate-chip cheesecake and had only good things to say, claiming that it more than made up for his dry steak.
By this point, the restaurant was all but full. Only two or three of the immaculately laid out tables were unoccupied.
Bella is famous for its huge windows that look out on to Chapel Ash and historic Banks’s Brewery and is perfect for a spot of people watching.
I was doing the same inside. There were lots of couples, from their early 20s right through to their 70s, enjoying romantic meals out; a table of 60-somethings demolishing round after round of delicious-looking cocktails; and a group of friends from overseas laughing and joking on table for six.
The vibe inside is sleek and modern – lots of mirrors, glass accessories and monochrome – but comfortable.
Despite the contemporary furnishings, the food that comes out of the kitchen is traditional and authentic. This is a family-run business that has made a success out of the best Italy has to offer. The food has heart and history and is clearly made by someone who knows what they’re doing.
OK, our meal wasn’t an out-and-out success this time around but I’ve been to Bella previously when you couldn’t fault a thing, including the service. Maybe they were just having something of an off day on this occasion?
The damage however was £102 so this was not a dining experience that came cheap. On those aforementioned previous evenings, I would have been happy to pay that. On this occasion, not so much. A hit-and-miss approach to both the food and the waiting style left a sting in the tail.
But still, I will go back to Bella. It has been too good in the past to give up on now.
And next time, I’ll remember my purse. Promise.
Bella Restaurant, Chapel Ash, Wolverhampton WV3 OTY
Tel: 01902 427555