Yes, my job is to boldly go where no encore reviewer has been. Sure, Bella’s Bar Local has called upon many readers to belly up to its pine, but in the past year they’ve done more than serve pints. They’ve snuck small plates onto their formerly fluids-only menu. And it is my job to do a thorough taste-testing and report back … challenge accepted.
First, let me say: Props to the man running the show—co-owner Dennis Mancinelli. Though the meal was superbly satisfying, the only bone I have to pick with him is how he categorizes the Bar Local menu. The entire list is classified as “small plates,” and I’m inclined to say this grouping is slightly deceiving. The second half of the menu is sandwiches. While the cheese-stuffed-overflowing-onto-crusty-bread-panini-style extravaganzas are quite tasty, they’re not exactly what I would call a “small plate.”
Good news, though, to diners touring the town for tapas—or in this case “cicchetti”—Bar Local does happen to offer some intriguing Italian-inspired starters.
As I enter on a brisk Tuesday evening, I’m smack dab in the middle of a painting class. Combine a watercolor expert with several glasses of wine, and Bar Local has just given customers a damn-good excuse to get out of the house on a boring weekday night. As Dennis pours one hoppy sample after another into my pint glasses, he dishes about how Bar Local’s cuisine is all made in-house. But here’s the catch: This house came kitchen-less. So what’s back there? A hot plate, a toaster oven, and a designated “line” that’s probably not much longer than my cat. Somehow, Bella’s is cranking out homemade eats to pair with their trendy lineup of craft brews.
I order hummus as I sip on Stone’s citrus-y Ruination Double IPA. As it turns out, Dennis isn’t a chef at all. Coming from an Italian family, creativity in the kitchen just happens to be in his genes. Dennis takes the recipes from brain to paper, and while he chats up the customers, a sous chef in the faux kitchen puts them on the plate.
The food processor buzzes away in the back, almost as if proving how Dennis’ “scratchmade food” is not taken lightly. Freshly-made roasted red-pepper spread, with warm pita bread and crunchy raw yellow squash slices for dunking, arrive. The smooth hummus tastes smoky from the peppers and has a light hint of sharp, minced garlic. Sure, it’s meant for sharing, but I did not.
Anyone who reads my reviews knows two things about me: One, I think beer is a food group; two, I’m a sucker for Taco Tuesday. In my pre-feast research, I found Bella’s Facebook page beckon $2 tacos on Tuesdays. Sure, I was ordering practially the entire menu for myself, but I figured, hey, what the hell?! What’s a taco or two? Upon Dennis’ suggestion—and with a telepathic high five, nonetheless—luscious pulled pork, piled high on a warm corn tortilla, is a fall-apart tender delight. Fresh cilantro and tangy red-cabbage slaw tops it, with crisp pickled veggies elegantly balancing the salty, juicy meat. The taco is more flavorful than tacos I’ve had from actual taco restaurants in the area. (I’ll stop saying “taco” now.)
Just prior to an upcoming sandwich coma, one of the bar’s nightly specials arrives. As the great Jerry Maguire said, “You had me at pork belly.” The fatty slabs—as tender as the day is long—rest on a bed of black beans and are topped with a tropical citrus salsa. No, the belly didn’t blow me out of the water, but keep in mind the plate was pimped out with practically no kitchen at hand. Not too shabby, Bella’s. Not too shabby at all.
Grilled cheese is delicious in the morning, and what goes best with breakfast? Stout, of course. A rich, coffee-scented Black Bear Stout pairs with with my indulgent treat wonderfully. The gooey grilled cheese comes pressed to perfection, oozing with blankets of cheddar, Swiss, and fontina, and slathered in a garlicky pesto mayonnaise. Nap, please.
From one carb carnival to the next, I row along to roast-beef sandwich land. Initially, pastrami calls my name, but Dennis suggests subbing in a different meat. The thick Italian bread, crispy on the outside and pillowy in the middle, features a substantial pile of roast beef and nutty Swiss. The savory grilled onions nestle between the melty cheese and put this beefy badass over the top.
The finale of my sandwich trio ends on a lighter note: the veggie panini. The flat, crackly bread loads up with rich housemade pesto mayonnaise and buttery fontina cheese. I could tangle the ingredients with shoelaces and they still would be delicious—but the sliced veggies really cap off the fresh and gratifyingly grilled flavor.
That once unassuming downtown coffee shop, with a spectacular riverfront view, will transform every foodie with its hip craft-beer bar and a menu suited for every taste. Bella’s brings big flavor with bountifully packed-between-bread delicacies, and smaller shared starter plates not to go unnoticed (fresh bruschetta, assorted cheeses and cured meats included). With many bottle shops and breweries in town keeping their bars food-free zones, Bella’s delivers the best of both worlds—not to mention their friendly squirrel who chills on the outdoor patio like he owns the place.
Hey, at least go for the squirrel.