A Matter of Taste

Everything about Chow Bella is charming--except for the food

As I bit into my slice of pizza, I could almost hear the voice of my deceased grandmother: "They put sugar in the sauce."

This was an action she considered tantamount to shooting the family dog or cussing in church. Now, I can't really say that the chefs put sugar in the sauce at Chow Bella, a charming little spot in the Main Gate area, but there's certainly something sweet in the tomato sauce that dominated all of the other flavors. Too bad, because this restaurant has an ideal location and a great look.

We met our friends Chris and Michelle at Chow Bella on the Tuesday evening during spring break. At first, we were the only people in the place.

The menu is filled with several pastas, panini and pizza (which is served on the house focaccia bread), along with a few salads. There is a full bar at the front and about a dozen wooden tables that reach back into the long, narrow room. The colors are washed in the same Italian gold that you see everywhere, and Italy-related pictures are on the walls. Chow Bella really has a nice look.

We perused the menu and ordered at the counter. Chris went with the cheese ravioli with meatballs ($8.49). Michelle got a house salad and half of an eggplant panino ($7.50). John ordered the Monte Cristo panino ($6.99), and I ordered the Margherita pizza ($3.79). We also ordered the breaded wings ($3.99)--wings are the only appetizers on the menu--and a glass of wine ($5.50) apiece.

By this time, other folks had trickled in: One in particular was a group of three older folks at the next table. All of the other customers, who arrived well after they did, seemed to get their orders first.

Chris and Michelle got their food first, and ours arrived shortly thereafter. Sadly, we had a tough time finding positives.

First, the wings were undercooked on the inside, and the breading on the outside was mushy. It appears that everything is cooked in an oven, and that would explain the lack of crispiness on the wings. This is a dish that begs to be deep-fried, so perhaps the wings should be taken off the menu. There are plenty of other oven-baked appetizers that could be substituted.

Then there was the signature focaccia bread that was served with both Chris and Michelle's meals. It ended up being a topic of conversation, because we couldn't figure out exactly what it was topped with. It didn't look very appealing, with the top being almost black and loaded with seasonings. We could taste balsamic vinegar (the black), oregano and garlic salt, but obviously, there was also something sweet beyond the balsamic--plus, we thought we tasted cinnamon. It was very weird.

Although the meatballs held their own, the sauce on Chris' under-stuffed ravioli was thick and sweet, and the pasta was overcooked.

Michelle's salad and panino were unremarkable. The eggplant was bland and got buried in the bread. There was marinara sauce on it, but only in passing.

John's Monte Cristo was merely a hot ham and turkey sandwich. It lacked the grilled look and flavor that makes panini, well, panini. It also lacked the egg batter that makes a Monte Cristo such a great sandwich.

My pizza was supposed to be topped with mozzarella, basil and tomato. Instead, there was that sweet sauce that had oodles of onions in it, with only a hint of cheese. This was more bread than pizza. I also had to ask for Parmesan, and when it arrived, it came in little packets. This is an Italian restaurant; Parmesan should be an automatic, and while it doesn't have to be freshly grated, there are plenty of ways to serve it other than in little packets.

Despite the food, we all really enjoyed the place. It's comfortable, and the people working there are all very friendly. The prices can fit nicely into a college student's budget.

A second lunchtime visit did have a bright point: John ordered the cold Italian grinder ($5.79), and this sandwich was a real winner. The meat and cheeses were enhanced with a nice dressing, and the bread was fresh.

However, my lime/garlic-marinated shrimp atop a bed of tortellini in alfredo sauce ($12.99) suffered from overcooking: The shrimp were tough, and the pasta was soggy. There was more of that focaccia bread, and try as I might, I just didn't like it.

Again, service was friendly and sincere, and on a sunny afternoon, Chow Bella offered a nice, cool escape.

This is one of those places that I want to succeed, because the attitude and the vibe are both fantastic. But the food needs some work. For starters, the pasta should not be cooked for so long, and the panini could be grilled a little longer for added flavor. And I'd change that signature focaccia: Add a little less balsamic; get rid of everything sweet; and top it with cheese that bakes to a golden brown.

Being an educator, John often gives a grade to our meals. His grade for our experience was a C-. I hope Chow Bella can do what it takes to raise that grade.

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