Bella — the newest dining option in downtown Cedar Rapids — is a good restaurant with multiple personalities.
Every time a new locally owned restaurant opens in this area, I fear that it doesn’t get a fair chance. Restaurant owners and chefs spend time developing menus but inevitably open shop with a few hiccups to work out. I’m afraid, though, that a single bad meal drives patrons away.
That’s why, after my first experience at Bella’s was a mixed bag, I went back a second time before sharing my thoughts with you here. Because even though elements of my first visit ran the gamut from good to bad, Bella ultimately has great food.
Before I talk about the food, a bit about the decor. I think the personality crisis at Bella’s is partially due that for patrons familiar with Blend, it’s a little disconcerting to enter the space that has been essentially unaltered. The pre-existing modern design doesn’t match the white banner with an elegant logo (one that fits Bella’s identity as a fine dining Italian restaurant better than the sign out front), which in turn doesn’t fit with the photocopied paper menu.
However, some people may say “Who cares about all of those things. How is the food?” And, to them, I’d say, once you receive your food, you are willing to look past all of this.
The meal starts with a basket of bread. And, that’s when you realize you just might be in a different type of place. Olive Garden, this is not. Let go of your expectations, and dig into the bread, which is more like a chewy bagel than a loaf of the commonly served French bread and is sometimes brushed with garlic butter and crispy on the bottom.
The first time I was there, I couldn’t decide between several of the eggplant dishes. Owner/chef Sal Kaba was willing to leave the kitchen and share his suggestions. I’m always happy to see that. I ended up selecting the eggplant florentini. It was delicious.
I was nervous about what would arrive at the table once we’d placed our order. But the fettuccine a la mar and eggplant florentini were great. The pasta was cooked al dente and the sauces freshly off the pan made sure the dish was hot. The eggplant was thinly sliced, lightly breaded and topped with a marinara sauce with a splash of cream. This is real Italian food, done right.
My next visit was to the outdoor patio at lunchtime. This time, I chose from the smaller lunch menu, but I went with another eggplant dish — eggplant rollotini. While the portions were a tad smaller, we also received salads with our bread, and I was brave enough to try dessert — tiramisu. The cream was airy and light with a small amount of espresso-soaked ladyfingers on the bottom.
While Bella has been open just about two weeks, I would encourage you to give it a try, or two, if that’s what it takes. I don’t know about you, but I always prefer to spend my dining dollars at restaurants owned by someone working hard to follow their passion. Kaba, who owns another Bella in Texas, is cooking the food he grew up eating and creates dishes true to his roots.