Pull up to La Bella Vita, the Garden of the Gods Road restaurant on a hill, and be embraced.
The door's opened as you approach by somebody in a white button-down and black pants; heading left, co-owner Tiziano Cestari, a trim and handsome man in his 30s, greets you with a handshake before you're led to your table. The lady is seated first, and with a quick flourish, her fanned napkin is laid in her lap. Water arrives immediately, with a black basket of hot, airy bread with whipped butter soon after, and you're ready to just begin your meal.
It's a restaurant that means it, this newest occupant of a space that's housed everybody from Antonio's to Broadway Deli. And with an interior redesign reminiscent of your morning coffee — all whites and creams and dark browns — it's as comfortable to dine in as it is to enter, which is no accident. Cestari and his business partner and executive chef Giuliano Casulli have a long history in fine dining, though this time it's for themselves.
"Sometimes, you have those things that you feel like, you gotta move on and start something on your own," says Cestari in accented English tinged with the lilt of his native Florence. "It was something that was in our dreams, and we always talked about it, me and him; and sure enough, we do it."
And do it well.
With his chef's training and past experience as a maître d'hôtel to lean on, Cestari is the consummate host: greeting, chatting, delivering dishes, enthusiastically explaining the day's specials, bussing plates and generally greasing the wheels on a dining room that's more enjoyable to eat in than most.
But Casulli's food — described as featuring "colorful plating, and a nice, beautiful flavor" — is no small part of the experience, with almost every dish surprising or delighting in some way.
In the cozze fresche alla marinara ($8.50), juicy bites of beautifully plump mussels in their shells rise from a tart, garlic-laced tomato sauce that demands to be soaked up with bread and savored. The tortellini della nonna ($9.25), a filling bit of comfort food, finds homemade, cheese-stuffed pasta paired with smoky bits of ham, then cloaked in a buttery white sauce.
And dig the veal scallopini piccata ($15), the meat carved off a leg delivered weekly, then pounded, floured and cooked with white wine, butter, lemon and capers. Even the small accompanying dinner salads, with a bit of cracked pepper and Parmesan added table-side to the thickly dressed greens, are fun to eat.
I didn't love the lentil soup ($3.50), an under-seasoned bowl of legumes and spaghetti noodles; the broccoli and sausage pasta ($10.75) was too lightly sauced for my taste; and the veal's spiral pasta was a tad mushy. But none of this diminished our lunch, which ended with an incredible cup of limoncello-spiked crème brûlée ($6) that carved like thick pudding and arrived after the table had been thoroughly cleared and crumbed.
More good came at dinner, where the full room vibrated with energy, the kitchen sang its song of clangs and chimes, and we were remembered and welcomed back from our meal days before.
First up: sautéed calamari ($10.75) which, though chewy, sank its rings in a sauce so good I spooned it up like soup, mixing it with toasted garlic crostini that lobbed heavenly bombs of butter and spice. Cestari himself then spooned out large portions of a breathtakingly luscious mushroom risotto ($12), full of meaty cuts of fungi.
The most expensive dish happened to be our least favorite of the evening: the plate of cioppino ($25.75), a seafood stew of mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp and a filet of orange roughy that found each of the items overcooked or on the rubbery side. But a real highlight came with the rolatine di pollo ($17.75), a roulade-style entree of pounded chicken breast that's stuffed with ham, herbs and gooey Fontina cheese then rolled. It's covered in sliced mushrooms and a golden Madeira sauce, then finished in the oven. When you cut into it, the white, lava-hot stuffings immediately ooze out over the plate in a surprisingly thrilling bit of craft.
La Bella just unveiled a comprehensive list of medium-priced Italian wines, and is expecting to hold a grand opening Saturday, Sept. 22. Definitely go — if not Saturday, then the next time you're hungry and want to leave your stress behind. As Cestari tells us, "A good meal can make up for bad service, or good service can make up for a bad meal — I don't believe in that. It has to be both."
This, clearly, is the beautiful life.