123 Quidi Vidi Rd.
St. John’s, NL
Ph. (709) 221-3048
A neighbourhood bistro with the easy-to-remember and not inappropriate name, Bellissimo, has opened in St. John’s. In this case, Bellissimo is the family name of the owner, Joey Bellissimo. Joey is chef, his dad, Joe Bellissimo, resident bonhomme and maître d’, and his mom, Linda Bellissimo, sous chef.
Linda is a Newfoundlander from Chance Cove. Joe’s Toronto born and bred and of Italian heritage. They lived in Toronto for years, in an Italian neighbourhood where Linda had a difficult time getting used to food prepared with garlic, olives and tomatoes. Eventually, she learned to appreciate and enjoy the cuisine, which at first offended her – although she still hasn’t totally embraced the stinking rose, judging from her moue when garlic was mentioned.
After reading the brunch, lunch and dinner menus, I quickly realized that in describing the restaurant, Bellissimo’s reference to “authentic Italian food” was incorrect. Besides, if the dishes aren’t cooked and consumed in the country in which they were invented, can they be truly authentic? Vegetables grown in Italy don’t taste like vegetables grown in Torbay and they never will. I prefer the word traditional, but Bellissimo’s food wasn’t totally that either. Partly, yes, but not totally.
Here’s what I mean. Bellissimo’s menu lists Caesar salad, spaghetti and meatballs and veal parmesan. None of those dishes are authentic or traditional Italian dishes. All three are American inventions. Sure, Italian chefs in America and Canada make them, but that’s because we Canadians and Americans want to eat them. Who wouldn’t? They’re good.
I should point out one more thing. An authentic or traditional Italian restaurant would serve frutti di mare. I couldn’t find a single morsel of anything from an ocean, bay, lake or pond at Bellissimo. No cod, no squid, no shrimp, no mussels, no clams. Not offering seafood, especially here, is a mistake. Let’s hope chef orders up some seafood soon. How about starting with a simple dish of shrimp and linguine?
Outside, Bellissimo is hard to miss with its bright, blue facade and hanging flower baskets. Inside, I noticed one major change. A south wall has been removed to create extra dining space for an additional 15 guests. Now the restaurant can easily serve about 35 dine-in customers.
Black and sweet
Bellissimo’s full name is Bellissimo Bistro and Espresso Bar. It sells Ionia brand Italian coffee. I had the chilled version, black and sweet, with lots of floating ice bits. It was delicious, the perfect drink to enjoy on your deck on a sunny, summer morning.
The tapenade appetizer was made with excellent black olives, roasted garlic and sundried tomatoes. It came with lightly toasted slices of baguette. Bellissimo’s tapenade was a refreshing change from others I’ve had. It wasn’t too salty and set me up nicely for the soup course that followed.
Almond and potato soup sounded more like a fall or winter dish but since it was nonna Bellissimo’s recipe I wanted to try it. Joe offered some powdery parmesan and red pepper sauce as condiments. I accepted. The potato and almonds had been blended into a purée. The soup had a nutty flavour. Stirring in the parmesan and red pepper sauce made it even more satisfying.
A simple dish of penne with tomato sauce can make a wonderful meal, if the tomatoes and pasta are of the best quality, especially the tomatoes. As soon as I tried this dish I knew the sauce was special. It was like tasting sunshine. Joe told me Bellissimo uses San Marzano tomatoes, the famous Italian tomatoes grown in the richest soil near the base of Mount Vesuvius. They’re canned whole and sold around the world. When you pair the sweet, low acid San Marzano tomatoes with pasta, you don’t need to add much of anything else.
When cooks in Bologna, Italy began making lasagna back in the 1300s it was all about the pasta. After boiling the pasta in consommé, it was layered in a dish with grated cheese and baked. The number of pasta layers didn’t matter, it could be as many as the heart desired.
Bellissimo’s lasagna was all about the pasta too. My homemade lasagna has about four layers of pasta with plenty of meaty sauce and cheese. Bellissimo’s had at least eight layers of pasta, with just a thin spread of ragù separating each. Spouse asked if I’d found any meat in Bellissimo’s lasagna, not satisfied by the dish’s emphasis on pasta.
The pasta was the point of this lasagna, and Linda Bellissimo had made the pasta herself. Judicious layering of flavourful ragù was all that was needed. The tender, multiple layers of pasta with sauce created a wonderful texture and very enjoyable eating. It was a traditional Italian lasagna.
Bellissimo’s cannoli shells tasted factory-made but I’m certain the creamy filling was house-made. The cannoli cream wasn’t quite sugary enough for me, even though I’m not a fan of sweet. It was very cheesy – ricotta I think – and without chocolate chips. I am a fan of chocolate chips.
Bellissimo may have erred in the word chosen to describe the category of its food, i.e. authentic, but what’s more important is that Joey Bellissimo’s food is good. This restaurant is a worthy successor to the eatery that preceded it. May it last a lot longer.
Price Dinner for two with beverage, tip and tax costs approximately $75.
Service Excellent and accommodating.
Atmosphere Relaxed, bright, positive.
Sound level Moderate.
Open Monday to Friday: 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Reservations Accepted and walk-ins are welcome.
Credit cards All major.
Beverages A small choice of beers, a selection of popular, quaffing wines, espresso beverages, pop.
Best bets Tapenade, lasagna, cannoli.
Wheelchair access No.
* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional