If the charm of maitre d' Pasquale Malachin and his staff doesn't seduce you at Italia Bella, the heady aroma of freshly baked bread and cooking sausages certainly will.
Don't let the fact that this friendly little restaurant sits next to a video shop in a small mall lead you to think of this as just another spaghetti house. Everything on the menu is adequate, a lot is good and a few items, notably that crusty and cheesy homemade bread, the fresh pastas and a dessert of cheesecake, are superb.
The dining room itself is a modest space, decorated with travel posters, framed postcards and Hallmark-like cutouts of dancers. The flower arrangements appear to have been plucked from someone's garden and lovingly arranged, for they vary from table to table.
A lot of attention has been given the food here; pasta is made fresh daily, and I'm told the restaurant makes its own sausages as well.
Mussels marinara sauce stands out among the appetizers -- it's difficult to tell which is better, those tender, fresh-tasting mussels or the broth of minced tomatoes, garlic and herbs (which is good enough to be a soup). Minestrone is very good here as well, full of broccoli, carrots and short homemade noodles that retained some bite. Antipasto is a decent plate of prosciutto, olives, eggs, salami, tuna, onions and cheese. One evening we opted to split an entree -- linguini Italia Bella -- as an appetizer. It was a delicious assortment of baby shrimp, clams, tender squid, tuna and mussels in a light tomato sauce -- and certainly worth $8.95.
If you're undecided about which pasta dish to order (there are almost 20), let the restaurant make the decision for you with a sample platter for two, an immense portion of spaghetti, ravioli, lasagna, fettuccine alfredo, cannelloni (stuffed with ground beef), manicotti (bursting with cheese) and chicken cacciatore, topped with four sauces. It sounds like a lot and it is -- in fact, the distinct flavors of the sauces tend to get blurred in the mixture, and you might bring home as much as you eat. The fettuccini alfredo was none too shy of nutmeg, and the meatballs that came with the platter were pretty plain, but otherwise the dish was a wonderful mix for $19.50.
Though pasta is the highlight here, there are 10 veal and chicken entrees, including veal or chicken parmigiana, marsala and cacciatore. Lest we become too enamored of some of the best dishes, however, a word on one of the less memorable entrees, specifically the "giuseppe"-style veal whose mushroom/pea/ham sauce got a bit tiring after the first few bites.
The host's previous stint as a dining room captain (both Malachin and chef Giuseppe Motta hail from the Kennedy Center) shows in the attentive and professional service of the staff here. In an establishment of this caliber, it's pleasant enough to have the waiter grind pepper over the modest dinner salads or split the pasta for you at the table. (Why, they even deliver fingerbowls after a messy appetizer!) But some details in the service here are those we generally expect of more sophisticated restaurants, such as the lighting of cigarettes and the placing of napkins on the laps of guests as they're seated.
In a neighborhood dominated by Oriental eateries, Italia Bella is a welcome addition.