Location: 2602 Brandt School Road, Wexford. 724-940-7777
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $7-10; entrees $12-19
Fare: Italian-inspired contemporary
Atmosphere: Comfortable and clubby
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: None permitted
Bella frutteto is Italian for "beautiful orchard," a phrase that conjures up sun-dappled hillsides, weathered stucco and wine-soaked dining. So why were we driving to a strip mall in Wexford? Sure, Soergel Orchards is right across the street, but there's no relationship between the venerable home of pick-your-own and this restaurant on the hillside above.
The "Aha!" moment came when we stepped onto Bella Frutteto's terrace, overlooking acre upon acre of Soergel's apple orchards. Despite the restaurant's handsome dining room and a blacktop driveway separating the outdoor tables from the trees, this is the place to sit on a sunny, late-summer evening.
Bella Frutteto's Italian-inspired menu features the fruits of these orchards in several apple-based dishes, including apple ravioli. We started with apple bruschetta, an original, welcome variation on the classic Italian appetizer. As interpreted by many restaurants, bruschetta is often little more than half-baked French-bread pizza. But Bella Frutteto features crisply toasted, well-browned ovals of crostini drizzled with rich balsamic reduction and accompanied by a bowl full of diced red and green apples, red onion and sweet bell pepper. Spooning this topping over the bread, we thoroughly enjoyed the fresh, lively interplay of crisp and juicy textures, and sweet, tart and sharp flavors.
Jason was less sold on the beans and greens, which he found too salty. But Angelique, who is the real aficionado of the dish, disagreed. She liked its substitution of spinach for the more traditional escarole, as well as its overall saucy, spicy character.
It seems no ambitious new restaurant today is without its own dressed-up version of macaroni-and-cheese, and Bella Frutteto is no exception. Its fried mac 'n' cheese consisted of three deeply browned purses of cheesy penne standing like islands in a pool of excellent tomato-cream sauce. The flavors and textures of the dish -- mild macaroni, crunchy crust and rich, creamy-vegetal sauce -- worked together to create an unusual and satisfying, if a bit heavy, dish.
Contemplating her choice of entrée, Angelique was in the mood for something summery and bold. She got it in the form of pasta diavolo, banana peppers sautéed with garlic in a tomato reduction and topped with a paprika-coated chicken breast, all on a bed of linguini. If not quite as devilishly spicy as its name suggests, this dish expertly played the piquancy of the peppers and garlic against the sweetness and astringency of the tomatoes. The moist, tender chicken added substance to what might otherwise have been a slender dish, and instead of more spice, the paprika added dimension to the other bolder flavors.
For Jason, pesto-marinated skirt steak, his favorite cut, was an easy choice. Our server recommended ordering the steak medium, but medium-rare yielded an excellent sear on the outside and juicy tenderness within. The effects of the pesto were barely discernable, but a delicate drizzle of balsamic reduction was a fine counterpoint to this robust cut.
A side dish of Guinness-battered asparagus took beer batter to new heights. The thin, bright green spears were still fresh-tasting within a darkly savory, crackly crust. The only flaw was the accompanying aioli that had "broken," leaking oil on the plate; nonetheless, its mild garlic notes complemented the asparagus well.
Bella Frutteto combines an innovative but unfussy menu with friendly service and some of the most congenial seating we can think of. Squint, and you may think you're in Italy -- not so much because of the authenticity of the food, but because of the confidence and care put into preparing and serving it.