The fact that Bella Notte — a new Italian restaurant in Paso Robles — is located next to the Food4Less might fool you, but this is not fast food or a national pasta chain. It’s the realized dream of two brothers who have worked in the food service industry for years, and who are now making Northern Italian food with authentic flavors and ultra-fresh ingredients.
The one thing they do have in common with their Creston Road neighbor is an emphasis on providing an unexpected value for the money.
When you step into the restaurant, there isn’t much Italian ambience. No tablecloths, no fancy candles and no elaborate wall murals. But the space is warm and comfortable with seating mostly at small tables inside and a large patio outside.
On a dinner visit last week, I was with three friends, so we all had the opportunity to sample a number of appetizers and entrees. We started with calamari ($10.95), bruschetta ($7.95) and Margherita pizza ($11.50).
The calamari was lightly breaded and deliciously crisp but still tender to the bite. The bruschetta topping included fresh tomatoes, basil and mozzarella, and was delicious. Unfortunately the crostini it was served on was a bit soft and lacked the texture and crunch of typical Italian breads.
One of Bella Notte’s specialties is its ultra-thin pizza, and this was no disappointment. My Margherita pizza was an ultra-thin 10-inch crust, perfectly cooked and covered with oozing cheese, fresh tomatoes and fragrant basil. A male friend at the table who lived in Italy for several years reminisced, “this is exactly the way it is in Lugano.”
Our next course was a choice of soup or salad, which comes with any pasta or entree. The house and Caesar salads were like most at local restaurants, but they were good, fresh and not overly dressed.
Entrees and main course pasta dishes at Bella Notte are extremely affordable. Ranging from $10.50 to $19.95, the servings are large (I had enough for leftovers the next day), and considering a soup or salad is included, a couple can easily have a three-course meal for under $50.
I ordered my favorite pasta, capellini pommodoro ($11.95). This is a simple dish of angel hair pasta, fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil, and because there are so few ingredients, they all have to be perfect.
In this case, they were. The pasta was just al dente, the garlic level was not too overpowering, and the light sauce just lightly dressed the pasta. Special pasta dishes offered daily include handmade ravioli, which are large, delicate purses of butternut squash or spinach, served in a silky cream sauce.
Other entrees at my table were similarly well prepared. A special for the night, mussels and linguine ($16.50), offered with either a red or white wine sauce, was loaded with tender, just-cooked mussels. The traditional spaghetti with meat sauce ($11.50) was offered with two optional meatballs, which were plump and tender, and only $1.45 extra.
In Northern Italian tradition, the Estrella brothers also offer chicken dishes such as chicken marsala ($16.50) and chicken picatta ($11.50), as well as veal classics such as veal scaloppini ($19.95) and veal picatta ($19.95). All these entrees are served with garlic mashed potatoes and assorted roasted vegetables.
The lunch menu includes many of the same pastas and entrees from the dinner menu, with prices starting at $6.95.
On a second trip this week, I ordered their antipasto salad ($10.95), brimming with fresh crisp greens, mozzarella, salami and turkey, shaved artichoke hearts and Kalamata olives. Dressed with a light balsamic dressing, it was more than I could eat, and could easily be split by two as a first course to pizza.
Desserts change regularly, and this evening our choices were chocolate torte, bread pudding, apple carrot cake, and two of my favorites: crème brûlée and tiramisu. All cost $5, and judging from the quality of the velvety crème brûlée, and the rich, traditionally prepared tiramisu, they are as adept in pastry as they are in pasta—a rarity for most Italian restaurants.
Manuel and Ivan Estrella opened the restaurant in February, with Ivan managing the front of the house, and Manuel supervising the kitchen. Manuel has more than 18 years of experience in Italian restaurants in the area, including Giuseppe’s in Pismo Beach and Gina’s in Arroyo Grande. The brothers sadly admit they never have been to Italy, and they credit other chefs they have worked with in the area with teaching them their cooking and restaurant management skills.
A couple more details before you go to Bella Notte, which means “beautiful night” in Italian. Reservations are not accepted, so depending on the day of the week, you might have to wait in the large, comfortable bar area.
The wine list includes a balanced offering of Central Coast wines, along with a sprinkling of Italian classics such as pinot grigio, Chianti and sangiovese. All are reasonably priced from $15 to $55 a bottle, and there are always about a dozen wines by the glass for $6 to $9, including several local wines. The corkage fee is a $9.