Bella's Bakery and Bistro is grandma's house masquerading as a downtown storefront. But I'm not talking about heavy-drapes grandma — you know, Montague's grandma. I'm talking grandma who's seen Frozen, keeps a firm hand on rowdy children and never lets you leave without an embarrassment of food.
Katherine Schmidt is just such a person. Roughly five minutes after I'd walked into her Bijou Street shop for the first time, she was regaling me with tales of the amazing taste of New York apples, and how energy drinks gave her son kidney stones, all while shaving salami, mozzarella and capicola — properly pronounced in the Sicilian fashion as "gabagool," I was told — for my cold-cuts sandwich ($7.99), a monstrosity that eventually reached the size of a small football.
She tells you to taste things, and if you sound hesitant, confirms that you're sure you want what you say you want. "I'll put it on the side," she says about some jalapeños. Apparently salespeople have been harassing her since she opened in early July, and sure enough, right behind me is somebody pushing a flier in her face, which she accepts with a good-natured eye roll.
Schmidt, 58, is generous to a fault, even, if you consider her food costs. That sandwich really was intimidating, and a half-sized Greek salad ($4.99) must have emptied the peninsula of feta cheese and Kalamata olives. One morning, the owner was insistent we try some cranberry scones fresh from the oven — "I put a teaspoon of butter in each one" — while, later, she buried a sandwich in a mound of hand-shaved turkey.
Most importantly to Schmidt, though, was a story she told about being a 10-year-old working at her parents' pizzeria and grocery store in Schenectady; it was then that she decided to someday open a restaurant selling meatballs and cupcakes.
And here it is.
The former Orchard Ovens Bakery (and, before that, OPB&J) is a relaxed spot with a scattering of two-tops and lots of warm wood. A display case and counter takes up the right half, where daily-baked pastries practically pull you in: lemon puffs ($1.95) and flaky apple turnovers ($1.95); almond croissants ($1.95) tasting like glazed donuts, and Key Lime cookies ($1.50); chocolate cupcakes and apple pies and trays of cinnamon rolls oozing frosting.
Naturally, most use a puff pastry dough that's pillow-soft and dense as soon as your teeth crush its airy frame. Some fruit fillings exhibit a funky habit of exuding sticky, clear liquid all over the wrapping — from settled sugar, I imagine — but it does nothing to mar the experience of culinary decadence.
A Key Lime cookie brings the ultimate highlight, though. It smells like a lemon-poppyseed muffin and tastes of the tangy, mildly bitter fruits over a shortbread-like texture. Coffee ($1.69, small), from Whole Foods' label, is needed but unexceptional.
And you better believe there are meatballs. Get 'em with a brash marinara, or a dark chipotle-cranberry sauce that ends up tasting something akin to a rich French onion soup when combined with beef meatballs and mozzarella on a chewy roll ($7.99). You can also go pork, which sings the song of black licorice.
Or grab chicken ($6.99) or egg salad ($5.99) sandwiches, though the former's better than the latter, or buy themed tissues, or fancy candles or stuffed Olafs (don't forget the warm hugs, there). Whatever you do, though, keep in mind that you're in Schmidt's house, as I didn't when I tried to pay for the cranberry scone.
"Never argue with an Italian," she said, fixing me with a twinkling look.