[Sidebar] May 18 - 25, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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Bella Vista

Italian with a view

by Johnette Rodriguez

1 American Express Way, Providence, 272-1040
Open Tues-Sat for lunch, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.;
Dinner 5-10 p.m. (Fri-Sat until 11 p.m.);
Sun., 1-8 p.m., dinner menu all day
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

The former Boathouse at Waterplace Park has a new name (Bella Vista), a new look (Italian courtyard) and a new menu (Italian). But it still has one of its two previous owners, Glen Ahlborg, lovely hardwood floors, and its terrific view of Waterplace Park and WaterFire.

The courtyard effect is achieved by wrapping artificial vines, complete with red, green and purple bunches of grapes, around the wooden and stucco pillars that form a semi-circle in the main room. There are flower boxes on the walls, Tony Bennett on the stereo and tuxedoed waiters who make you feel right at home. The two boats hanging overhead are obvious leftovers from the Boathouse, and they do detract somewhat from the Italian theme.

The Bella Vista menu is extensive, with more than a half-dozen offerings each under the headings of seafood, meat, veal and chicken (curiously, the latter category includes Long Island duck and farm-raised baby pheasant). There are a dozen pasta dishes and four risotto variations. And the 16 appetizers are specified as "cold" or "hot."

Bill was intrigued by the gamberi alla Romana, three jumbo shrimp cooked tableside, flamed with sambuca and served with spinach and radicchio ($9.95). Our waiter rolled a portable gas burner and countertop next to our table, and began the drama of sauteing the shrimp in butter and white wine. Then, once the pan was very hot, he splashed in enough sambuca to make an impressive flame. After the flame burned down, he added the greens just long enough to wilt them, gave the dish another dose of sambuca and served it up.

The shrimp were a tad on the raw side for me, especially in their tips, but Bill loves anything rare, and he praised the shrimp. The sauce was sweet from the sambuca, although the characteristic anise flavor had evaporated.

Our next course was an arugula salad for me ($5.95) and pasta e fagioli for Bill ($3.95). The baby arugula leaves were tossed in a vinaigrette and topped with roasted red peppers and kalamata olives, and this earthy salad was a treat. The soup had cannelini beans with small tube macaroni. Bill wanted more pizzazz in the soup, but I liked it for the hearty taste of the beans, though I could barely detect the escarole and pancetta.

From the entrees, I had the risotto al pescatore ($17.95), and Bill the rollotini di pollo ($19.95). The arborio rice in the risotto had just the right degree of firmness, and the pleasant kick of the light tomato sauce didn't overwhelm the seafood: four littlenecks, a generous portion of scallops, a not-so-generous portion of lobster meat, and a large handful of baby shrimp. I would have preferred a few medium shrimp, since the baby ones don't carry the true shrimp taste, to my palate.

The pollo dish was a chicken breast pounded and rolled up with fontina cheese, herbs and pancetta in the middle. It was served in a Madeira sauce and accompanied by mashed potatoes, and though tasty, it didn't seem spectacular enough to be a $20 entree.

Which brings me to the wine. We shared a glass of the house chianti (recommended by the waiter as "bold") and a glass of the chardonnay, and $7.50 per glass seemed steep for wine that was unusually bland. Bella Vista is in the process of revising and updating its wine list, and they have a full bar on each floor.

Most of the desserts, including the tiramisu, mascarpone and fruit tortes, Black Forest cake, linzer torte and an Italian nut torte, are made by the skilled bakers at the Christopher Matthews deli in Smithfield. Bella Vista does make a few specials of their own, including the table side flambeed specialties, such as cherries jubilee, strawberries Romanoff and bananas Foster.

The best fired-up performances at Bella Vista, however, are outside, not inside, as crackling bonfires ring the pool next to the restaurant on WaterFire nights. As the restaurant's name suggests, the city and water view is beautiful, with seating for 60-70 on the patio downstairs and for another 120 on the upstairs verandah. So, study that WaterFire schedule and call in your reservation pronto.

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