When it comes to noodle and pasta dishes, I'm desensitized. They're all I ate in college. Despite the overexposure, Italian-inspired cuisine remains at the top of my list. From pasta to pizza, Italy will always have my heart (and my stomach).
The bad news is that I'm not the only who feels that way. Italian food is crazy popular in America, and restaurants are resting on tried-and-true recipes that no longer impress. At least, not as frequently.
Occasionally, I'll find a place that puts its own spin on dated dishes or offers something unconventional, and come out a winner. When I heard of Bella Vita, a little Italian restaurant in Mansfield, I had hoped it'd be such a place.
The name means "beautiful life" in Italian -- a good sign, considering all the restaurants currently named after a Jimmy, Joe, Giovanni, or Lombardi.
Inside, the scent of pizza and pasta fill the narrow dining room. Anyone know how to say "heck yeah" in Italian?
Baked pastas ($7.95), sandwiches (hot or cold, $6.25-$6.75) and salads ($2.50-$6.25) are immediately recognizable. They're familiar, low-dollar options, and there are more than 20 of them. But for the good stuff, you'll have to peruse the other side of the menu and shell out more cheese.
The "Pasta Favorites" ($8.95 each) and chicken entrees ($9.95-$10.50) are the Ferraris of Bella Vita. They're made-from-scratch meals, like fettuccine molto mio ($8.95) and chicken pizzaiola ($9.95).
The chicken cremora's ($10.50) brandy sauce won't impress the kids, but on some hot and tender poultry and mushrooms, adults will rejoice.
On the ziti arrabiata ($8.95), well-cooked penne pasta and mushrooms in a playful and spicy marinara sauce create a tasty union between pepper and onion.
Tender? Check. Spicy? Got it. Bacon? Let's do it.
Forget spaghetti and meatballs. Try Bella Vita's most beloved dish, the tortellini Michelangelo ($8.95): macaroni stuffed with ricotta and sauteed with bacon, onions, tomatoes and artichoke hearts in a custom-made sauce. When asked about the dish, owner Luma Seji said, "Oh, everybody likes the Michelangelo.
"We used prosciutto but switched to diced bacon, since more customers like bacon," she says.
And she's right. Americans will put bacon on anything: salads, soups, steaks, their children's breakfast cereal. But that's not the only reason the dish had us jamming our forks onto the plate. Like in the ziti dish, there's an onion overtone that plays well with the diced bacon, tomatoes and artichoke hearts. The brightly colored, creamy homage to the 16th-century artist is already a top contender for my favorite dish of 2011.
The name is simply a tribute, and there's even a fettuccine Leonardo ($8.95) with a creamy cheese sauce. The hint of spice in the Michelangelo probably makes it the better option, though.
Next, Seji is giving breakfast a try, with her second location in Rendon now offering omelets, pancakes and waffles -- made from scratch like her Italian recipes -- from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Maybe she'll cook up some "pancakes Raphael"?