In this era of hard-sell marketing, in which many restaurateurs would gladly offer their first-born child into servitude to get your business, it's particularly charming to find a place that, while welcoming your patronage, isn't so interested in having you drop by that they don't expect you to call first. In fact, if you walk up to the door of La Bella Cucina at lunch or dinnertime without having made a reservation first, owner/chef Veronica Bagnato will in all likelihood tell you firmly (if politely) to go someplace else -- even if she has plenty of tables available.
It's not that Bagnato is stubborn. Rather, it's that she's practical. After all, if she doesn't know how many people are going to show up for a meal, how does she know how much food to prepare? And since she has only one sitting each for lunch and dinner, such considerations matter.
Dining at La Bella Cucina is like dining at someone's home, and any civilized person knows better than to bring home an unannounced guest. This place is to lunch and dinner what breakfast is at a good bed-and-breakfast; diners are almost expected to chip in and help serve. Bagnato, a Pittsburgh transplant with deep Italian roots, has spent a decade developing the cozy, friendly atmosphere of her restaurant -- and of her cooking school. At the back of the main house where Bagnato serves meals is a guest house in which, twice a week, she teaches students how to prepare the food they find in her restaurant.
The first time you visit La Bella Cucina, you might well miss it, since it's off the beaten track in an old house (1909, to be precise) four blocks east of Heights Boulevard. It certainly doesn't look like a restaurant from the outside -- there's no flashy sign, no stream of diners, no wafting odors of what lies within. In fact, the only indication that there's anything culinary going on here is the name inscribed in gold script on the front doors, a name barely visible from the street. When you enter, you can be overwhelmed by the sheer Victoriana of it all. Cluttered cabinets are filled to the brim with china, crystal and hundreds of little breakable curios. The green stucco walls of the main dining area are covered with paintings and accessories, all of which are for sale. There are three dining areas: the parlor and living room, which each seat four to six, and the main dining room with its hammered tin ceiling and open kitchen, which seats an additional 20 or so. Classical music playing in the background adds to the atmosphere.
Aside from her reservations-only policy (and her odd hours: lunch is served Monday through Friday only, noon to 2 p.m. only, while dinner is a Thursday to Saturday affair from 6 to 9 p.m., and Sunday brunch is 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.), another Bagnato quirk is her "surprise menu," which changes daily. Rather than choosing items from a menu, diners are served, at a very leisurely pace, whatever Bagnato has prepared that day. Bagnato bills her approach to cooking as "fresh European country-style cuisine," and her offerings live up to the billing. For $8.50 at lunch and $20 at dinner, you get a bowl of soup, an antipasto plate and a main course, which at lunch is generally a plate of handmade pasta. Yeasty, soft, homemade country rolls and free-flowing herb tea are all included. Here, even the tea, flavored with either jasmine or chrysanthemum, is special. A carafe of the brew is placed on the table along with a bowl of ice, fresh mint and limes.
During a recent lunchtime visit, in which I and a companion were the only diners, Bagnato started things off with a minestrone-style soup. It differed from standard minestrone in using meat only as a flavoring, not as a primary ingredient. The small bowl held a broth laden with onions, red kidney beans, potato dumplings and a sprig of rosemary. Bagnato likes to use herbs and fresh vegetables in her cooking, many of which come from her own garden. The antipasto plate consisted of a tart cucumber salad marinated in a balsamic vinegar dressing, basiled tomatoes, a slice of cantaloupe and a slice of calzone made with homemade pizza dough.
Because some diners aren't as trusting of Bagnato's judgment as they could (or, in my estimation, should) be and don't want to settle for the meal of the day, she's experimenting with an a la carte lunch menu that includes such favorites as lasagna, manicotti and ravioli. One main dish included tricolor tortellini and ravioli. These ricotta cheese-filled delights are served with a sauce made of sweet potatoes and sage butter, an unusual but pleasant combination. Less successful was another dish of fettuccine served with a parsley bechamel sauce along with red peppers and onions, which was somewhat bland and lacked any distinctive flavor.
At dinner and Sunday brunch, Bagnato is less dictatorial than she tends to be at lunch, offering a choice of five to six entrees. One recent dinner began with an antipasto plate of Swiss chard, Oriental spinach and climbing spinach, roasted eggplant, a tomato salad, slices of salami, papaya, kiwi and sweet champagne grapes the size of petits pois. This apparent mismatch of ingredients worked wonderfully, the sweet, tart and salty flavors blending well together, tribute to Bagnato's talent for making use of what's fresh and available. A second antipasto was a pan-fried salmon cake, browned on the outside, on a base of marinara sauce, topped off with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. The salmon was gently seasoned with herbs and had the consistency of a crab cake.
The two main courses sampled both included the same side dishes of baby bok choy marinated in soy sauce and flash-fried in olive oil, grilled Brussels sprouts, roasted peppers, snow peas and okra and some red potatoes coarsely mashed with tarragon. The vegetables remained crisp, yet still managed to soak up the juices emanating from the entrees. The veal Marsala, which turned out to be more like medallions of veal, were fried in butter and sported a good, not overpowering Marsala wine flavor. The portion of meat was meager, but that didn't particularly matter, given the abundance of side dishes.
The other main dish was New Zealand mussels on the half-shell: five large, pink mussels peeking out from beneath a creamy bechamel sauce. The mussels, poached in white wine and garlic, weren't chewy, as too many mussels tend to be, but tender and irresistible.
Desserts are one of Bagnato's particular specialties. Though at $5 apiece, the price for desserts may seem steep compared to the value of the rest of the meal, it's worth it. On one visit, Bagnato had made a wonderful blueberry tart served with a warm custard and fresh raspberries. The crust was exquisitely thin but nevertheless remained crunchy. When questioned about this, she revealed that it was made with the same dough she uses for her sugar cookies. On another visit, I discovered a light and airy hazelnut torte. This very spongy, speckled cake had a very sweet buttercream topping and was served with a delicious orange marmalade sauce; the chewy pieces of orange peel contrasted nicely with the lightness of the cake. This, too, was served with fresh seasonal berries on a base of chocolate sauce.
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At La Bella Cucina, even the coffee isn't your plain vanilla -- in fact, it's French vanilla flavored. Because of the nature of the restaurant, meals cannot be duplicated exactly from one visit to the next. However, if you absolutely have to have a certain dish, and you let Bagnato know about it when you make your reservation, she'll attempt to honor the request.
One side note for those unaware few: the Heights is dry. In spite of its being incorporated into the city of Houston, earlier rules still prevail, which means beer, wine and liquor cannot be sold within the Heights' limits. So should you desire to imbibe an alcoholic beverage when visiting Bagnato's Victorian home, you'll have to BYOB, and pay a $6 uncorking fee.
La Bella Cucina, 1642 Arlington, 880-2166.
La Bella Cucina:
lunch of the day, $8.50;
dinner of the day, $20;
antipasto plate, $2;