Trying to find a restaurant that offers pleasant surroundings, refined, unobtrusive service and a menu that both inspires and comforts can involve a lot of work.
The erosion caused by fast food-model economics plus acquiescence to bad table manners (including texting) by the patrons means you have to hunt for a restaurant that makes your dining experience a gracious one. Such a place is Johnson City’s “Bella Vita,” owned by Amel Rugovac; a place where everyone can experience the “beautiful life.”
From the outside, Bella Vita is remarkably nondescript, tucked behind an appliance store; only the signage over the front door indicates its location. Entering, you are in a capacious dining room with a well-stocked bar on-site serving beer, liquors and a competently managed wine selection.
Restrooms (tidy) are toward the back along with the kitchen area. The room ambience spectrum runs from bright and sunny (for family gatherings), to shade and twilight for the romantically inclined. Our server Cody, quiet and capable, provided knowledgeable assistance for us with Bella Vita’s menu and wine list.
Baked calamari with penne pasta: To start, our Carnivore friend ordered his usual baked calamari with penne pasta (in Italian, Calamari con penne, $11.99) with a house salad and garlic bread.
Calamari, (Italian for “squid”) is probably the most perishable of all sea creatures, which means they have to be cleaned, prepared, baked in some of Amel Rugovac’s savory ragu (red sauce) then served over penne pasta and finished with a light dusting of real grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
His salad, a simple side dish of seasonal greens, sliced Roma tomatoes and scratch-made croutons, made the perfect accompaniment to his entrée. The garlic bread had been toasted and then rubbed with a mixture of crushed garlic, oregano and olive oil; all of it, absolutely delicious.
Baked vegetables with penne pasta: The Dieter’s recently adopted vegetarian tendencies got a nod with her ordering the baked vegetable penne (Verdue con Penne, $13.99). Coarsely chopped Chanterelle mushrooms, sweet onions and luscious green bell peppers are folded with the special ragu and parmesan cheese.
Once again, the Bella Vita house salad, this time with a balsamic vinegar-based infusion, was there to provide the necessary counterpoint. Verdue con Penne is simple to prepare, yet yields a remarkably complex set of flavors and textures.
Chicken Florentine with spaghetti pasta: The Retiree and my dining partner decided to split a plate of Chicken Florentine (Fiorentina di pollo, $15.99). Here, Amel chops a boneless breast of chicken, sautés it in a white wine reduction infused with both the zest and juice of a lemon.
He then adds fresh-torn leaves of spinach along with a mix of mozzarella and parmesan, sends it on a trip through the oven for a quick melting of cheeses and melding of the different flavors into a harmonious whole.
Amel then plates it on a delicious tangle of spaghetti pasta, sending it out with salad and garlic bread, for their (and our) enjoyment.
Salad with scallops: In consideration of the summer heat, my choice for supper was salad with scallops (Insalata con capesante, $11.99). Here, seasonal and field greens are mixed with some tubes of cold penne pasta, slices of Roma tomato, green olives and black Kalamata olives, rings of purple onion, chunk of red bell pepper, some shredded fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese, and bedecked with hand-selected, cooked and chilled large scallops.
With a few drops of balsamic vinegar (from Modena, of course) and some extra virgin olive oil, my salad and scallops was a dish fit for Neptune himself.
The bottom line: Though Bella Vita’s menu is comprehensive, the back page is where the Customer Favorite Entrees hang out. Once upon a time, these dishes were created at customer request, all of them one-off and definitely off-menu. Each was so remarkable and popular it wound up being added to the menu.
One such, Shrimp Sammy ($17.99), has shrimp, spinach, red peppers, garlic and white wine taking your taste buds on a scrumptious roller coaster ride.
Amel Rugovac, Cody and the rest of the team at Bella Vita do lunch and supper each and every day, giving a friendly smile to everyone who comes through their front door. Why don’t you and your friends and family experience la Bella Vita, on-menu or off? Maybe one day yours can be that off-menu creation that achieves immortality on Bella Vita’s Customer Favorite list.
Bella Vita Italian Restaurant
2927 North Roan St.
Mon 5 p.m.-9 p.m.
Tue-Fri 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-9 p.m.
Sat 5 p.m.-11 p.m.
Sun 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Available on Facebook and at bellavitajc.com
Credit cards accepted