Tony Vallone as you've never seen him & unclassic Italian at the new Caffe Bello
Anyone thinking Caffe Bello would just be Ciao Bello: Montrose Edition doesn't know much about Montrose — or about Tony Vallone.
Caffe Bello has many of the Vallone restaurant signatures — amazing meatballs, attentive staff, light-filled rooms — but marks a departure for the brand. Playful and light, there's a fresh approach to the menu and service.
The space is more reminiscent of previous resident La Strada than either Tony's or Ciao Bello, with exposed brick and mismatched light fixtures and plenty of John Palmer abstracts. It hits the right tone between refined and funky, but in a way that feels a bit contrived.
The top of the brief Caffe Bello menu contains a quintet of what they call pizzettas, 7-inch Roman-style thin crust wonders. Alongside classics like margherita, prosciutto and arugula, and bianca with prosciutto, our table swooned over the version with bresaola, pear, taleggio and truffle honey.
The green heirloom tomato gazpacho had a smooth, cloud-like consistency, a pleasant departure from the average chunky version.
For entrees, I could not resist the Vallone version of a CFS, the chicken-fried sirloin with truffle gravy and truffle butter mashed potatoes. While the flavors were delicious, the tenderized steak was a bit overwhelmed by the breading and gravy. The potatoes, however? Rich, silky-smooth and to die for.
The smash hits of the table were the melt-in-your-mouth meatball trio with just the right amount of marinara, a daily special that showed off the Vallone lineage, and the sapori di mare linguine prepared al dente with mussels and San Marzano tomatoes. The seafood flavor was rich and just salty enough, and balanced perfectly with the freshness of the tomato and the house-made pasta.
The only hiccup of the meal was the lamb loin chop, which came out cooked unevenly — very rare in some places, almost medium in others. But where the kitchen faltered, the management did more than its share.
In addition to bringing out a new entree (which was a bit charred on the exterior as a result of hurried cooking), a second lamb chop was boxed up to show how Caffe Bello would cook it properly, a veal cutlet sandwich was delivered to the table (and then boxed) and a quartet of desserts arrived to end the meal on a sweet note.
It didn't erase the mistake, but it showed how committed Caffe Bello is to excellence and making sure every patron leaves happy. In the end, that's more important than a flawless kitchen.
The desserts were a beautifully plated cross-section: A trio of chocolate-dipped homemade ice cream sandwiches were phenomenal, a chocolate cake was serviceable, and the lemon tart and sorbet were the perfect light end to a modern Italian meal.
I've heard stories of zealous, pitch-perfect service, but at our lunch the waiter never quite seemed to establish a rhythm — the soup came without a soup spoon, we had to ask twice for sugars with our iced teas, etc. Though it wasn't the smoothest service, our waiter did work with the manager and the kitchen to make sure we were satisfied and happy.
Was it a perfect meal? Not exactly.
But there was plenty on the table worth serious raves, a reasonable price point and a commitment to excellence (despite the setbacks) that separates a tried-and-true restaurateur from the also-rans. In short: I'll be back.