Identity Crisis

Bella D'Auria can't figure out whether it's a fine-dining restaurant, a sports bar or a nightclub

One of my guilty TV pleasures is Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. I've worked in plenty of restaurants that probably could have used his help, so that's part of the appeal.

But what I really like is that the show can offer a mini-tutorial on what restaurants should not do. Aside from all the yelling, the moral of each episode is: Have a plan; be consistent; and cook good food well.

In some ways, my visits to Bella D'Auria reminded me of Kitchen Nightmares. Not because of cleanliness issues—the restaurant seemed quite clean and well-kept on both of our visits—but because it seems to lack direction. Fine dining, sports bar, nightclub, coffee bar ... Bella D'Auria is all and simultaneously none of these things.

The décor is confusing. Tall, pub-style tables are adorned with white-linen tablecloths, and the tile work on the floor is very classy and beautifully done. There is even a pianist on Friday and Saturday nights. But the majority of the seating is in what would traditionally be considered a bar, in full view of several TVs with sports channels blaring. The front of the bar is decorated with neon lights and panels that change color and would be better suited at a nightclub. And on top of the linen tablecloths are cardboard coasters advertising NFL Sunday Ticket. The other half of the dining area, not in front of the bar, has three huge, ceiling-mounted speakers and a projector, and more neon lights adorn the walls.

I will concede the point that if the food is good, the atmosphere in which it is consumed shouldn't matter as much. But, in reality, it does—yet the food at Bella D'Auria wasn't impressive enough on either of my visits to forgive the lack of direction. As for Ramsay's advice to cook good food, and cook it well, Bella D'Auria has the "good food" part down, ingredients-wise. The kitchen uses quite a few organic, sustainable and locally sourced ingredients—but the execution of the dishes is often a failure.

Overcooking pasta in an Italian restaurant is absolutely unforgivable—but amazingly, that wasn't the worst part of my Friday-night meal with Ted. Both the hostess and server were aloof and inattentive. Even worse, many of the staff members, including someone who appeared to be either an owner or a manager, chewed gum throughout our visit. If you're serving food or drinks, that's completely inexcusable.

The menu also speaks to the lack of direction. The appetizers on the dinner menu are more like what you might find at a sports bar: fried clams, fried mozzarella sticks, coconut beer-battered shrimp, fried calamari, hot wings, bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers and our choice, pan-seared provolone ($9). These menu items are not in any way Italian (with the exception of the provolone, perhaps), and are definitely not something I would order at a restaurant where the table linens are white, and the male servers are dressed in head-to-toe black, with button-down shirts and bowties.

The provolone appetizer was, frankly, gross. A half-inch-thick slice of provolone, a little bigger than the size of my palm, was pan-fried and topped with sautéed greens. It wasn't even completely melted in the middle, and the outside had a vague burned taste, as if it had been fried in used oil. There was no detectable seasoning on either the cheese or the greens—and eating a slab of semi-melted cheese with nothing to accompany it was just plain bizarre. After being charged $9, I was appalled.

The entrées weren't any better. My linguini with clams ($18.99) was drowning in garlic (and I really love garlic). The dish came with 12 tiny clams that were so chewy, it was like eating rubber bands, and the pasta was way past al dente. Ted ordered the veal parmigiana ($18.99)—and by the way, if you're going to go with the "organic, local and sustainable" mantra, including veal on your menu seems like a poor choice. The veal was pounded thin and was tender, but was overwhelmed by the thick, bland breading. It sat atop a pile of spaghetti that was so overcooked, it was near mush. The dish's only redeeming quality was the red sauce, which was thick, flavorful and well-seasoned, with just a touch of garlic.

Dessert, thankfully, ended the meal on a positive note. We chose to share the Italian lemon cream cake ($8). The cake was light and fluffy, with the perfect amount of lemon. The splash of amaretto on the plate was a lovely complement.

Lunch with my mom was better, but there were still some issues. The lunch menu features a few of the same entrées as the dinner menu, plus some burgers and entrée salads. I decided on the meat lasagna ($11.99). Our server, who was quite friendly and competent (although a bit nervous), warned me it would take 25 minutes or so, and it did. When it came out, the dish was drenched in sauce. The lasagna noodles were soggy, and there was way too much cheese, but the meat sauce had a nice flavor to it.

Mom ordered the salmon salad ($13.99), which consisted of a grilled filet on top of mixed greens, various salad veggies and some grilled pineapple, all dressed with cilantro-lime vinaigrette. She enjoyed it, saying that the flavors blended quite well, although the salmon was a bit dry and just a little overcooked.

All in all, I can't recommend a visit to Bella D'Auria until the owners figure out what it's going to be—a fancy Italian restaurant, a sports bar or a late-night DJ hangout—and fix the sloppy errors in the kitchen.

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