BELLA NAPOLI is the sort of place where you feel almost compelled to join Dean Martin in a rousing rendition of "That's Amore." The cozy restaurant radiates Mediterranean warmth with its murals of the Bay of Naples and steady supply of Italian music (including Dino's classic.) The chef has an Old Country accent that could be cut with a knife. The staff chats with customers as though they're all old friends.
Creating such a convivial atmosphere in a mere two weeks sounds improbable. Yet that's just what Biagio Carannante has done.
It was not so obvious from the exterior; when we pulled into the empty parking lot of the shopping center where Bella Napoli is located on a lonesome stretch of Mountain Road in Pasadena, we had our doubts. But once we stepped into the elegant little foyer and saw a dining room more than half full with families and couples, those worries disappeared.
The wait for water, wine and appetizers was longer than we liked, but the rest of the evening ran smoothly.
For $5.95, the mussels caprese appetizer is a bargain with enough shellfish for two, maybe even three people. The dish featured about 12 tender, meaty bivalves standing upright in a delicate sauce of white wine, garlic, parsley and lemon juice.
Another appetizer, bruschetta alla napoletana, was tasty enough. But the large slices of thick bread were not nearly as hot as the tomato-basil-garlic sauce and mozzarella cheese spread on top.
Garden salads were pretty basic: Lettuce tossed with carrots, small black olives (one unpitted) and exceptionally good tomatoes.
Bella Napoli got a gold star for its ability in handling special requests. We asked that the chef leave the prosciutto out of the sauce used in the tortellini tricolore. The remaining ingredients of peas, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic gave the cream sauce a wonderful sweetness that might have been lost when blended with the salty ham.
In comparison, a very similar-looking cream sauce in the chicken portofino was tangy. What gave the otherwise gentle white-meat-chicken and pasta dish such an unusual touch was that the chef cooked the sauce with Granny Smith apples. Several slender wedges of the green fruit made the entree appealing to see as well as taste. And, like the mussels appetizer, there was more than enough here to feed two.
Of the five desserts, we chose the two made in house. The tiramisu was an exceptional blend of smooth golden pudding laced with amaretto and bite-sized bits of chewy cake. The chocolate mousse was too heavy.
Bella Napoli's heart is in the right place, evidenced by the staff's willingness to handle special requests and explain service problems up front. For that reason (and those two excellent sauces that came with our entrees), we understand why this newcomer seems to be off to a better-than-average start.
350 Mountain Road, Pasadena
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: AE, D, DC, MC, V
Prices: Appetizers $3.75 to $7.95; entrees $4.95 to $16.95
Food: * * *
Service: * * *
Atmosphere: * * *