Location: 22 Graeme St., Downtown. 412-281-6363
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, sandwiches and salads $9-11
Atmosphere: Rustic yet refined
Liquor: Full bar
Most of the time, when we go to a restaurant, we try not to know too much about it in advance. Bella Sera was an exception. We couldn't help picking up on some of the buzz that surrounded its energy-efficient appliances, its trash (reduced through assiduous efforts at recycling and composting), and the local sourcing of its food. Bella Sera's Downtown location even means that chef and owner Jason Capps can deliver orders by foot or pedicab, reducing emissions that contribute to the restaurant's carbon footprint. All this adds up to Bella Sera being certified as "green" by the Green Restaurant Association.
Which is all to be commended, of course, but what about the food? Well, just as a green building doesn't mean a geodesic dome in the woods, a green restaurant doesn't mean a menu of granola and tempeh. (Although meat and dairy -- much as we love them -- are pretty problematic for the environment, a fact acknowledged by the Green Restaurant Association, which would have given Bella Sera further points for their omission.)
What excites us about Bella Sera isn't the things it does right for the planet, but the things it does right for its customers. With lacquered, exposed brick walls, artist-designed table tops and tea-lights twinkling in every nook and cranny, Bella Sera has a romantic feel that coexists with a convivial, almost communal vibe. It's just as suitable for after-work drinks, pre-theater dinner or a nightcap before you head up to your fashionable Downtown loft.
The menu shares this flexibility, ranging from sandwiches, small plates and salads to a few well-conceived entrees. Capps defines his venue as a trattoria, midway between the light offerings of a bar and the full meals of a bistro, and it's perfect positioning for Market Square. While Capps' preparations are distinctly upscale, prices and portions are mid-range, meaning that you can get happily fed for under 20 bucks.
And you should get happy, as the choices are enticing and, often, creative takes on traditional Italian fare. The insalata verde takes its name literally, combining butter lettuce with a garden of other green ingredients: asparagus, sliced Cubanelle pepper, rings of green bell pepper, housemade pickles, green pumpkin seeds and pesto. Despite the pleasing harmony of the colors, all these disparate elements didn't quite come together; in particular, the emphasis was too heavily on the tart and sour side. The more traditional chopped salad was more successful, with tomatoes, cucumber, gorgonzola and heart of palm providing sweet, sharp and mellow flavors in good proportion. Incidentally, serving fresh tomatoes in the dead of winter is a bold move, and Bella Sera's, while not great, were pretty impressive for February.
We fared better with the appetizers, especially the polenta and rock shrimp. This may have been the best polenta we've ever had: creamy, thick enough to cling to a spoon without being heavy or dense, and perfectly brightened by a simple, chunky tomato sauce. The shrimp and scallops were sweet and enlivened with just a bit of lemon.
A dish of cannellini beans and escarole was agreeably hearty, thick and stew-like, with a slight tang, perhaps from a dash of vinegar in the broth. It was available with or without sweet sausage. We ordered it with, but the sausage's mild flavor was lost among the other ingredients and seasonings; spicy sausage would have had more of a presence.
Angelique ordered a sandwich for dinner. It's not usually her style, but she was seduced by the combination of Black Forest ham, whole-grain mustard, Granny Smith apples and brie. As it turned out, it would have been better as two sandwiches: the robust flavors of the salty, smoky ham and spicy mustard complemented each other beautifully, but overwhelmed the more subtle combination of sweet-tart apples and creamy brie.
Veal meatballs are available every day as an appetizer, and the night we were there, a pasta special featured them as well. The more of these excellent meatballs, the better, as far as we're concerned: They were light and tender where lesser meatballs are dense and heavy, and perfectly balanced between the delicate flavor of the veal, the moisture of the bread binder and the subtlety of the herbal seasonings. A fine marinara sauce clung to the al dente noodles. The night's other special pasta was tossed with a panoply of ingredients, including artichoke hearts and olives, in a white-wine sauce. As with the insalata verde, the variety of ingredients was perhaps a bit too broad, but this dish came together more successfully, with the farfalle providing a substantial base for the full spectrum of vegetal flavors.
A restaurant with a conscience is a fine thing, but Bella Sera also pleases the eye and the palate.