Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bella, Bella, Bella

What better way to describe our day at the Mission Inn (Riverside, CA) with Chuck’s Aunt Margaret and his cousin Sandra than the Italian word for beautiful? And that describes the Inn, our lunch at Bella Trattoria Italian Bistro, and the company we shared.

Both Margaret and I are partial to Mexican food and our plan was to have lunch on the patio at the Inn’s Los Campanas Mexican Cuisine & Cantina. But circumstances intervened. The circumstances to which I refer were walking past Bella Trattoria on our way to the Inn tour and the immediate mouth-watering response that ensued. We were torn. Italian? Mexican? Italian? Mexican? While the decision was being made, I opted to go outside for a quick cigarette. No dummy me. I’ll let the family decide. When I returned the decision had been made. Italian it was.

The four restaurants at the Mission Inn are multiple award winners. The Southern California Restaurant Writers awarded Bella Trattoria with the following: Award of Merit, Promising Newcomer (2007); Award of Merit, Gold (2008); and Award of Merit, Distinction for Food & Beverage Director of the Year to Carlos Acosta, Bella Trattoria’s Food & Beverage Director (2008).

Bella Trattoria’s seating includes a large patio area and a small (and air conditioned) inside dining room. Both Sandra and I are always warm, so we felt fortunate to obtain the last indoor table. The patio looked inviting when viewed from our air conditioned comfort. Maybe on another visit.

The lunch menu consists of mostly southern Italian fare with salads, gourmet wood oven pizzas, paninis, and “make your pastas.” For the latter, the menu lists a variety of pasta types, a variety of sauces, and a variety of add ons – meats, veggies, mushrooms (are mushrooms a veggie?), etc. Two items that looked interesting were the salad of baby greens with grilled salmon served with raspberry vinaigrette and the grilled salmon served on a risotto cake.

Margaret and Sandra decided to share the Garden Vegetable Wood Fire Pizza. What came to the table was a work of art. The thin crust was piled high with cheese, tomato, green peppers, red peppers, yellow peppers, and mushrooms, to which they added a generous grating of parmesan cheese.

Chuck decided to order the soup and half sandwich combination with the tomato basil soup and a panini. Yes, they do consider this to be a half sandwich. I had also been eying the panini as my choice, so I decided to order something we could share. Since salmon is not Chuck’s thing, I chose the Magherita Wood Fire Pizza.

The soup was a savory puree of tomatoes and basil into which had been mixed some parmesan cheese. Although the soup was tasty, it should have been warmer. We are finding that tepid soup is a dining hazard. Are restaurant owners afraid of being sued if they serve soup too hot?

The Panini was superb! First, the ciabatta roll had a crisp exterior and a soft, airy interior. Just the type of roll one seldom finds in one’s local supermarket. It encased a split link of sweet Italian sausage that was full of flavor, but light on the fennel along with cheese, yellow, green, and red peppers, cheese, and roasted eggplant. I suspect that Chuck regretted the decision to share, but a promise is a promise.

My pizza was a very good example of this classic Italian pizza. Tomato sauce, cheese, sliced roma tomatoes, and chiffonade of basil topped the thin, but surprisingly uncrisp, crust. The crust was more like thin bread than a pizza crust.

We didn’t plan on dessert, but then I made the mistake of telling our server that we’d like to take a look at the dessert menu. We decided to order one lemon tart with four spoons. Then I suggested that we order both the lemon tart and the panna cotta. I think that I made a brilliant decision – if I do say so.

Being a fan of tart lemon flavors, the tart was Margaret’s favorite of the two. Alive with bright lemony tang, the tart - with its dollop of whipped cream - was served in a crisp, and not sweet, shell.

My favorite was the panna cotta (cooked cream). The restaurant started by placing a thin circle of sponge cake on the plate. The sponge cake was topped by a crisp chocolate cookie. Finally, the panna cotta, infused with bits of vanilla bean, sat on top. And surrounding the whole creation was a mélange of mango, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries. The tart unsweetened fruit perfectly complemented the sweeter panna cotta. And the crisp chocolate cookie gave crunch and texture to the soft and custardy panna cotta.

I must admit that for such a refined restaurant the service seemed somewhat disorganized. As much as I would like to give Bella Trattoria the full 5.0 Addies, I do need to deduct for tepid soup and erratic service and only award 4.5 Addies.

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