Bella Piatti, the younger sister restaurant to Birmingham’s terrific Tallulah, opened last fall with a fair amount of anticipation and great expectations.
And why not? Tallulah is one of the more imaginative restaurants to grace the area’s growing dining culture — a very urbane, Euro-flavored place in a town that only a decade ago began shedding more of its small-town character to become a delightful destination for dinner.
So it was reasonable to expect much the same kind of achievement from owner Mindy Lopus with Bella Piatti.
With its casual dining menu and sparse, streamlined, modern interior, Bella Piatti fits snugly into its community and surroundings. It’s a good addition.
There’s much energy at Bella Piatti. The dining room has that open feel that lends extra size to a fairly tight interior. Long walls with partial faux-stone sections flank each side. The high room has a corrugated metal ceiling, along which run support beams and air ducts.
Lots of natural light floods the room from the storefront windows; oversized, pleasant prints and paintings dot the walls. Wood tabletops are surrounded by tall-backed leather chairs. At the rear of the room is an extremely large U-shaped bar that can easily accommodate a dozen or more diners at a time — and it does — on its three sides.
There’s such a good vibe from the bar — a real sense of community gathering and interaction — that, on a future visit, I will ask to be seated there.
Chef Daniel Campbell’s menu leans to rustic Italian, but also wanders into areas that elsewhere might be called “continental,” which is restaurant speak for anything else the chef might want to add.
Overall, the food is the best part of Bella Piatti. The theme is relaxed eating and small plates, of which there are 13 choices, and eight other selections that come from the Italian charcuterie station, a second bar with seats and its own stand in the middle of the restaurant. For $30, you can order a platter loaded with prosciutto, bresaola, cured wild boar ham, sopressata, capicola, and other meats — easily a good main course for two.
From the list of lighter fare, I had one of the freshest, well-prepared, grilled sardines I’ve had in years. The single Monterrey Bay sardine, fresh-sea fragrant and dressed in a lightly zesty peperonata with pine nuts, was ample. It arrived lightly smoky, moist, and meaty inside when the skin is peeled back. Perfect. (Monterrey sardines are much larger than their Atlantic cousins, which used to be more common here but are now very over-fished and in decline.)
Other small plates include a salad of tomato, creamy burrata, and basil; a dish of trumpet mushrooms with taleggio cheese; and another of risotto fritters with squash and pumpkin seeds. But that’s where the Italian part ends in this area of the menu.
The other small courses — more California in nature and still creative — include a dish of beets, pistachio, and orange; another of whipped sheep ricotta with kumquat marmalade and walnut bread; a cucumber-mint yogurt; and a salad combo plate of apples, celery root, celery hearts, and cashews.
One of the nice rustic touches here is that these courses are served with thick slices of crusty, dark peasant bread fresh off the wood grill. It arrives at the table emitting an appetite-teasing aroma of warm yeastiness and a whiff of wood-smoke singed bread.
I’m not much of a grazer, so multiple small dishes are not really my thing, although when I’m working, I need to try many different things, and I do. My preference is for a more traditional structure to my meals: One small first course and a bigger main course is all I want. Because of that, the other parts of Bella Piatti’s menu, with seven pasta choices and six meat dishes, is more my dining speed.
The pastas here are also part of the lighter style of the menu and include such dishes as a buckwheat gnocchi with cabbage and a duck ragù, a cavatelli with a wild-boar tomato sauce; and a dish of orecchiette (which means “little ears” for its shape) served with miniature ground-lamb balls in a tomato-based sauce, which was delightfully full and flavorful on the first visit, but flat on the second.
Two outstanding meat dishes worth recommending are the porchetta using Berkshire pork, and the “eye” of a strip steak that arrives sliced on the plate, perfectly cooked and dotted with sliced sweet onion wilted in olive oil and parsley. Utterly simple and succulently good.
Sommelier Antoine Przekop’s wine list is quite extensive, with a long list offering 65 choices from all regions of Italy. The majority are upward of $45, but a few are priced lower.
Bella Piatti is a terrific new restaurant, but it has one flaw that needs to be corrected. The service is somewhat aloof, which is not a positive thing in any restaurant. We noticed this across two visits.
When service is good, attentive, and welcoming, you just sink into the mood of a restaurant. Here, you feel outside the zone of the staff.
When we were seated, our server didn’t appear for at least 10 minutes and, when she did, it was without apology. She took a drink order almost offhandedly, and another long lag followed before she took our dinner order. Other than delivering and clearing plates, she never checked back. Three times, we had to ask other waiters passing by for bread, water, and olive oil. Finally, we stopped a manager and asked for salt and pepper. He brought pepper but not salt. Someone else did that. And so it went.
The final coup de grâce of service: Halfway through dessert, our server leaves the check on the table with no offer of coffee or after-dinner drink or a “How was dinner?”
At the moment, this is Chef Campbell’s show. But his good work needs the support of a dining-room staff. That should not be at a place as nice and with the potential of Bella Piatti.