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Bella Epoque

Bella Saratoga
Christopher Gardner

Food With a View: Bella Saratoga attracts passersby with its promise of pastoral outdoor dining.

Despite a different name and a different owner, Bella Saratoga's tradition of graceful alfresco dining continues to thrive in the Village

By Andrew X. Pham

On a sunny afternoon, the fetching patio of Bella Saratoga beckons like a siren. Irresistible aromas reel in passing pedestrians as surely as hooked trout. Along Big Basin Way, an avenue rife with stellar gastronomy, Bella Saratoga--the successor to the well-loved Bella Mia--holds it own with grace to spare.

In the early summer of 1995, when Bill Cooper took over the facilities after Bella Mia's owner migrated to downtown San Jose, he knew he had something special. Cooper, equipped with good instincts and a background in business, did the right thing. That is, he did nothing. He left the menu unchanged, didn't even commission a cosmetic makeover for the restaurant. But the best, and probably wisest, thing he did was to convince Roger Sanchez to stay on as executive chef.

Bella Saratoga strikes a photogenic pose with her elegant Victorian lines. From her wooden porch to elaborate awnings to curvy moldings and creaky stairs, she seems more a home than a restaurant. She is a slim two-story house outfitted to serve as an intimate restaurant, complete with a bar and a dining patio. Her warm pastoral ambiance charms easily.

The afternoon of our visit had a touch of the Mediterranean--something about a toasty sun, a riveting blue sky and too much white linen. So, naturally, we succumbed to a starter that exuded a breath of sun-washed blue sea: steamed mussels tossing in waves of golden wine, sweet with garlic butter ($8.95). The mussels, beautiful and huge, were slightly tough (probably not a fault of the kitchen--large mussels tend to be tougher than smaller ones).

The special--grilled petrale sole ($10.95)--was actually battered and pan fried. This gave the fish an absorbent coat for the subtle chive sauce punctuated with fresh seedless grapes. Flaky white and moist, the fish, sided with grilled vegetables, couldn't have been better, although the batter could have been patted down to reduce oiliness. The red grape skin's tartness made a nice exclamation mark against the light creaminess of the white sauce.

The kitchen excels at making fresh pasta. The menu stores something for every pasta lover: salmon ravioli, chicken cannelloni and lasagna, among many other choices. But nothing tests the quality of a pasta chef more than a simple linguine di capra ($10.95). Our order appeared on an oval platter; from its bounteous proportion, it promised to be a real feed. Costumed in the natural colors of slivered vegetables--deep purple eggplant, red and yellow bell peppers, earthy mushrooms and crimson sun-dried tomatoes--with mini bonnets of white goat cheese adding to the palette (and palate), the al dente hand-made linguine won our admiration.

Choosing dessert proved to be the most difficult part of the meal: Pastry chef Ramon Sanchez presented 13 choices over which the sweets addict might be paralyzed with indecision. Judging by the parade of luscious creations going to every table, however, making a wrong pick was a remote possibility. We opted to go the old-fashioned way with a bread pudding ($4.25) and a praline cheesecake ($4.50). Both materialized, in generous portions like everything else, on respectable full-size plates, not the silly saucers so many restaurants use to belittle the finale.

At the center of our square of teak-colored bread pudding, bready and creamy all at once, lay sheets of sour green apple sandwiched in sweet raisins and perfumed with cinnamon. This posh bed was made even more hospitable with a wonderful bourbon sauce.

Nearly as good as the bread pudding, the cheesecake received honorable mention for its rich freshness accentuated with toasted almonds, all arranged on a yin-yang pattern of not too sweet (but somewhat unnecessarily thick) caramel and chocolate sauce. As befits a premium dessert, each of these sweet entries required three cups of coffee to conquer.

The old adage "Don't fix what's not broken" seems to work very well for Bella Saratoga. Captivated, we certainly will return on some other enticing spring afternoon.

Bella Saratoga

Cuisine: rustic Italian with occasional continental forays
Ambiance: enticing pastoral, intimate
Menu: $7.50­$16 (dinner prices slightly higher)
Hours: Mon.­Thu., 11:30am­9pm; Fri., 11:30am­11pm; Sat., 10am­11pm; Sun., 10am­9pm
Address: 14503 Big Basin Way, Saratoga
Phone: 408/741-5115

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From the April 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro

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