Thursday, April 19, 2018
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Review: For 25 years, Bella's Italian Cafe has remained popular by just being itself

TAMPA

Talking to an Italian woman once, I learned that newlyweds in Italy don't routinely get cookbooks to aid in the setting up of a new household. It would be insulting. Or unnecessary. Or both. You learn to cook from your mother or grandmother, regional dishes that are specific to where you live that you learn by rote and adhere to rigorously. No froufrou additions or modernizations, no kooky "fusion" shenanigans. Just do it like Mama taught you — if it ain't broke, etc.

That's how I feel about Bella's. Joanie Corneil and Bill Shumate opened the SoHo restaurant 25 years ago. At the time it was the fifth restaurant between Kennedy and Bayshore. Six or seven years later that number had swelled to 29. The only South Tampa stalwart that's been there longer is Bern's. Larry Heisel has been behind the bar since Day 1, manager Eric Potts has been there for 22 years, manager Michelle Rice has been there for 15 and Milisa Burns has been there for 12.

The place has had two remodels in its lifetime and still manages to be comfortable but upscale enough to host date night elegantly. It's beloved, the parking lot a zoo and the dining room bustling nearly every night. Corneil and Shumate have managed something miraculous: They've maintained a flagship restaurant while adding additional concepts. They launched their first Square 1 Burgers in 2008, with two more introduced in Sarasota, one in Fort Myers and another one on the way in Brandon. That's a lot of burgers.

But for Corneil, Bella's is her first love. A stint in Naples, Italy, while working for NATO started her affair with Italian food, and she's responsible for most of the recipes at Bella's to this day. Now is the time for a small amount of tough love. Many of these recipes read to me like the Italian-for-an-American-audience dishes that restaurants in this country were serving in the 1980s. Lots of sauce, huge quantities of pasta cooked well past al dente, and a tendency toward creaminess that Italians might find puzzling.

I spent time in Italy last year, marveling at tremendous regional differences, even notable flavor and ingredient variations from town to town. The food at Bella's is geographically indistinct, more the idea of Italian food that we hold dear.

And many people hold it dear. Regulars swear by the Confetti Spaghetti ($12.99), a creamy basil tomato sauce dotted with bacon, tomato concasse, onion, basil and green peas creeping around a zillion strands of soft spaghetti. To me, it's too much of too many good things. I'd opt for a buttery shrimp scampi appetizer ($9.99) offered with simple toasts with which to sop, then follow up with a straightforward veal piccata ($25.99), its pounded scallopini tender and the lemon butter balanced (pair it with a side of steamed broccoli to cut the buttery richness).

Or go for salad and a pizza, the house Caesar ($5.50 half, $8.99 full), a little timid with the anchovy and egg but appealingly crunchy with romaine and croutons. The restaurant's stone oven gets hot enough to render pizzas with a blistery, chewy-crisp crust, whether topped with chicken and spinach ($12.25) or sultry ricotta, pesto and strings of molten mozzarella ($10.50). And with already reasonable markups on wine, Wednesdays make it a serious bargain with all bottles half off.

Bella's was named so in homage to when Corneil lived in Italy and her young children's cheeks would be gently pinched by elderly admirers cooing, "bella, bella." Those kids are grown now, but Bella's is still the kind of place that feels right for South Tampa famiglie young and old. Servers are warm, portions are ample and the place shimmers with the patina of Tampa tradition.

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.

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