Monday, March 28, 2016

Review: Bella's Italian Cafe, Tampa FL

Given the number of transplanted northeasterners in Florida, it's not surprising that you can easily find some excellent pizza in the sunshine state. On a Phillies spring training trip to nearby Clearwater, we made a stop in Tampa en route to the airport.

Any "best pizza in Tampa" list contains Bella's Italian Cafe, located in Hyde Park, a hip part of Tampa featuring a lot of interesting dining spots. We stopped in on a Monday for a late lunch.

This is not just a pizza place, but a full-menu Italian restaurant with a large attractive dining room and bar inside. The kitchen boasts a Neapolitan-style wood-fired dome oven that is visible from the dining area.

We opted to order one personal size pizza (the Americano, featuring pepperoni, just $6.99) and one pasta dish to share. 

We had enjoyed a lot of grouper sandwiches in Clearwater Beach (the best one is at Keegan's in Indian Rocks Beach), so the $11.99 Grouper Rosso was the perfect pasta choice: chunks of spiced grouper sautéed with scallions and mushrooms in a creamy basil-tomato sauce with fresh tomato, tossed with linguine.
Grouper Rosso
A quick note on the pasta: it was delicious, with al dente noodles, a perfectly seasoned sauce, and generous chunks of tender grouper. But our main focus was, of course, the pizza.

The small pie came in an  unusual football shape, and was cut into four modest-sized slices. As with every pie, the crust was the defining element. Here, it was thin, crisp, crunchy in parts yet also chewy. 

Pizza "Americano"
Underneath, the crust showed some nice browning from that wood-fired oven, and a curious cross pattern that suggests it was cooked on some kind of a rack. No matter how it was baked, it was superb bread that would be wonderful without anything on it due to its flavor and texture. 
The sauce had an excellent tang, but it was a role player because it was applied sparingly in relation to the other ingredients. The cheese was a standard aged mozzarella, but there was too much on this small pie. Its weight and moisture caused the tip of each slice to droop and become a little soggy.

The pepperoni looked conventional, but most of it rode high on top of the other ingredients and hence it got a nice oven browning. It added the perfect savory cured meat flavor. It was applied a bit unevenly, but it was a big boost to the pie.

I love onion on pizza, especially when sliced so thinly that it almost melts into the sauce and cheese.  Here, we found bigger chunks of excellent but almost-raw purple onion. Good stuff, but might have been better if sliced more thinly and cooked longer.
We loved the pie
This Americano pie also had mushrooms on it, and they were well above the standard stuff. Big slices and full of flavor, they may have been crimini mushrooms. A very nice touch.

Too much cheese, uneven pepperoni, a bit light on the sauce, soggy in the middle. That is a lot of flaws, but nonetheless this was Grade A pizza, due to its superb crust and the overall quality of the ingredients.

Also on the lunch menu was a simple Margherita pie, with just sauce and Parmesan cheese. I'd love to try that, to get a fuller tomato flavor and to let that crust shine without a full complement of traditional pie toppings.

Great pizza, excellent pasta, friendly service, and a warm ambiance. Bella's is succeeding on all fronts, based on this single visit. Destination Tampa pie.
On a side note, Tampa is home to a Cuban-Italian pizza hybrid called scachatta. We ran out of time, but on my next Phillies spring training visit, I'm going to be sure to try this distant cousin to a Philly tomato pie.

Bella's Italian Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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