Atmosphere: Elegant, but friendly.
Price range: $6.50 to $9.75 for pastas, seafood, veal, chicken and house specialty entrees. All entrees include salad.
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sundays.
Credit cards: Master Charge, Visa/BankAmericard, Amercan Express.
Special facilities: Accessible by wheelchair.
Reservations: Necessary at lunch and on Friday and Saturday nights.
The scents on Bethesda Avenue at noon can drive you crazy - garlic, tomatoes, oregano. Whenever I have an errand to run on that street, I know I'm going to feel hungry when I'm not, want Italian food when I've already had lunch. It's all the fault of Bella Napoli, a small restaurant there.
In an effort to see what all those good smells were about, I took my family there for dinner one night. Housed behind a very unprepossessing facade, the restaurant, we thought, looked like a down-at-the-heels, casual place. Neither the location nor the exterior prepared us for the bright and beautiful interior.
"What a surprise," one of us gasped, as we arrived casually dressed. The restaurant had whitewashed walls and ceiling and tables set with heavily starched white tablecloths. The oil paintings and prints on the wall emphasized a deep blue, suggesting the Bay of Naples. There were cut-glass water and wine goblets on the table and fresh flowers.
As we sat down, our water glasses were filled by a busboy bearing a beautiful ceramic blue-flowered pitcher, which was left at the table.
Our water came over to see if we wanted to order immediately, wait a while, have cocktails or study the menu. We sent for a half carafe of white wine and studied the menu.
There was no mention of children's portions so we asked our waiter. No children's portions were offered, he said, but the children could easily share an entree. Since the main, courses ranged from $6.50 to $7.50 for pastas, $8.00 to $9.75 for seafood, $7.25 to $8.75 for chicken and veal dishes and $6.75 to $7.50 for house specials (Cannelloni Bologna style, Fettucine Verdi al Ragu, Cappelletti alla Bolognesse, Calamari Affogati), we thought a shared entree would be a fine idea for a 10-and 11-year-old. Each ordered an appetizer of soup, and we settled down for a pleasant dinner.
There was excellent Italian bread on the table, plenty of butter and a small ceramic bowl filled with freshly grated parmesan cheese. Our feasting on these items was interrupted by the arrival of the soup.
Our daughter, whom the waiter called "signorina," still had her napkin on her plate when the soup arrived. The waiter picked it up, asked her if she liked to wear it "Italian" or "universal" style. She chose Italian. He opened the napkin with a flourish and tucked it under her chin. She thought that was pretty funny, but our son leaned across the table and whispered, "Write it down - the service is very good."
Our daughter's minestrone soup, at $2.25 a bowl, was unlike any minestrone we had ever seen. Large chunks of vegetables, especially greens, left hardly any room for the broth. She said it was delicious and very grudgingly let the rest of us taste it.
Our son had cappelletti brodo at $3.25 a bowl. Cappelletti, our waiter explained, are homemade - noodles stuffed with meat and similar to ravioli.The broth was light and mild and set off the dainty cappelletti very nicely.
All main courses come with a fresh salad, and our three arrived full of crisp romaine lettuce and other greens. Our son, who never was crazy about vegetables, was happy to have just a few bites from our salad.
Our children had decided to share lasagna. The waiter brought the entree to the table already divided and on two plates. Each portion looked so complete that it was hard to believe the children were sharing an entree. Between the soup, bread and salad, they were barely able to finish the portions.
I ordered eggplant parmesan, $6.50, a house specialty, and enjoyed it. There was no heavy breading and the tomato sauce didn't overwhelm the eggplant and cheese.
On the way to the restaurant my husband had been talking about mussels and how he would love some. When he spotted Zuppa del Golfo on the menu, he decided it was worth the $9.75 price. The menu described Zuppa as a combination of fish, squid, mussels, clams and shrimp. When it arrived it was absolutely gorgeous. Mussels in their dark shells and clams in their light shells floated on top of a bed of shrimp, squid and fish in a tomato sauce.
It was a very generous portion and we all got to try a little of everything - even the mussels.
We weren't going to have dessert, but when the waiter described the choices, we decided to split two of them four ways. We chose canolo, which the waiter said was a pastry with a cream filling made from ricotta cheese, and vanilla rum custard pie.
The desserts were the only disappointment of the evening, but we think it was us rather than them. That is, we decided we wouldn't like canolo or vanilla rum custard pie anywhere.
As our son suggested, the service was excellent. The atmosphere was exceptionally nice, and we never felt rushed to finished and move along.
Our bill for the wine, two soups, three entrees, two desserts and one coffee came to $35.10. By the time we paid tax and tip, we had spent $42.
The price was higher than we usually pay for a casual dinner out with our children, but we thought it was a fair price for a special occasion dinner. We only hope this taste of fine Italian cooking won't spoil our children's taste for more ordinary and less expensive Italian food.