The words ‘Bella Italia’ conjure up images of rolling Bolognese hills, breathtaking Florentine architecture and the shimmering waters of the Amalfi coast, yes, but for me, they take me back to steaming plates of tomatoey rigatoni after a long day at Legoland. Bella Italia – or Bella Pasta, as it was in my childhood – is indeed a chain but stepping into the homely warmth of the George Street restaurant, you quickly forget that. Comfortable booths, a decor of earthy reds, and myriad signs, pictures and relics of the Peninsula as well as a greeting from the hospitable, attentive staff set it apart from the more modern, somewhat ‘colder’ approaches to Italian food these days.
Any evening of Romantic romance requires a certain intimacy within the meal itself, so naturally we opted for the antipasti to share: the antipasto misto provided nibbles of rich salami, creamy buffalo mozzarella and salty olives, tied together with an unexpected yet delectable roasted red pepper tapenade and contrastingly peppery rocket. A baked Tomino cheese, dubbed ‘the Nothern Italian version of baked Camembert’, was gooey and satisfying enough to have us scraping the plate to the very last drop with all manner of foccace, grissini and crudites – gladly, the ubiquitous bread, central to any Mediterranean diet, was light and delicately oily, and the prefect accompaniment to our antipasti.
Satisfied, but nowhere near full, we were delighted at the arrival of our main courses: a decidedly Lady and the Trampesque dish of spaghetti with meatballs, done with enough aplomb and generosity to exceed the inevitably high expectations of such a classic, and the ‘Bistecca ai Ferri Insalata’ with zucchini fritti (or ‘grilled steak with salad and fried courgettes’, for those of you not versed in the beautiful language). The latter, ostensibly rare but perhaps a touch overdone, came with the same red pepper tapenade which, combined with the classic green salad and a drizzle of balsamic, made a nice change from the standard of chips, ketchup and mustard. Make no mistake: the steak at Bella Italia is something of a different pleasure from that of Spoons, presented with elegance and delicacy rather than as an unabashed meat brick and, whilst I am in no way disparaging the latter, it is occasionally nice to escape the student lifestyle for long enough to enjoy such a delight. Whilst the zucchini’s oil content indicated that they may have been a little too fritti, any quibbles were readily cast aside at a sip of the nectarous Lucchese Chinati, perfectly paired with both the spaghetti and the steak.
At this juncture, the Gourmand sacrificed his low-carb diet for the sake of his duty to you, and so we marched valiantly on into the realm of desserts. The ‘Godfather’, which boasts a combination of fudge brownies, vanilla and honeycomb ice creams, and all manner of sauces, creams and sprinklings, was just as divinely sinful (and diabetes-inducing) as it sounds. The lighter option of the cappuccino and mascarpone semifreddo with lingue di gatto biscuits felt sensible in comparison, but was just as delicious, a coffee kick balancing out the creaminess. A (rather generous) cappuccino proved the perfect partner for the biscuits and indeed the perfect end to a meal which left the OxStu‘s finest epicures more than satisfied.
Whilst it may not be Quod, the prices do make Bella Italia something of a rarer treat for impoverished students than the staples of hall or kettle pasta, but if you find yourself with a little extra in your budget, it is certainly worth the trip to one of the finest Italian eateries in our fair city.