Thursday, January 3, 2013

Caffe Bella Strips Away Strip Mall Restaurant Label

Randolph may not be widely regarded as a fine dining haven, unless one considers Not Your Average Joe’s fare to be above average. But look more closely, however, in a rather nondescript strip mall of all places, and you’ll find a gourmet gem in the rough. Caffe Bella is an Italian bistro that has long been popular with locals, and it is easy to understand why. An extensive menu boasts large portions of surprisingly creative, mouth-watering Italian cuisine at a fairly reasonable price point that falls below what you’d be accustomed to doling out for similar fare in Boston (although some may still find the prices a bit excessive for the strip mall setting).

            For appetizers, head directly towards Caffe Bella’s impressive assortment of fresh seafood offerings, including a heaping serving of Cape Cod littlenecks (there’s nothing little about these plump clams) and P.E.I. ‘Icy Blue’ farm raised mussels alongside spicy sausage ($21.50). Everything is playfully served up in a giant sauté pan, perfect for allowing the seafood, meat and two buttery-good pieces of wood grilled bruschetta to soak in an aromatic, intensely flavored, spicy broth infused with plum tomato, jalapeno, chile, garlic, scallion, and basil. The broth, in and of itself, could be served as a stand-alone dish. “We’ve had customers actually ask to bring just the broth home, it’s so good,” our affable server explains.

            Entrees are just as strong, including a hearty portion of Caffe’s Bolognese sauce tossed with fresh hand-cut parpadelle noodles ($16). It’s meaty and the perfect comfort food on a chilly, snowy winter evening. Wood-grilled duck breast and slowly roasted leg ($28) are moist and perfectly cooked medium, laced with a lovely sweet apricot fig glaze. Sides of lima beans and frisse salad are merely superfluous here, bland and seemingly for display. As impressive as the duck tastes, however, the dish’s piece de resistance is its accompanying house-made sweet potato prosciutto ravioli, one of the most memorable pastas I’ve sampled in the last couple of years (since that wonderful sweet pea lobster parpadelle dish at Providence’s woefully underappreciated restaurant, CAV). This version includes two raviolis that are uniquely prepared: they’re cut razor-thin, while the prosciutto is finely minced in with the sweet potato. A touch of sweet cream is then layered atop the pasta, enhancing the ravioli’s already ethereal flavor. It’s a stunning accomplishment, and quite frankly, left this critic stunned as to why it is not served as a stand-alone entrée. I’d gladly order it time and time again.

            Desserts, all of which are made in-house, provide a scrumptious conclusion to the evening. I forego the more traditional tiramisu and gladly dig into espresso ice cream topped with broken biscotti pieces and creamy nutella.

            Service is extremely polished and genial. Our waitress effortlessly recites the menu from front to back and confidently makes suggestions based on the fact that she has sampled every item (an impressive feat). Earlier in our meal, when I inquire if Licor 43 (a vanilla-flavored Spanish licquer) is available, she warmly smiles and recalls enjoying Licor 43 and Coke during her days studying abroad in Spain several years ago. When she reveals that she studied in Sevilla - where I, myself studied as well – a fun conversation ensues. Before we know it, my wife and I have been at Caffe Bella for over an hour and a half.

            Where did all the time go? And how did I end up so thoroughly enjoying my experience in this strip mall locale? Caffe Bella casts conventional wisdom aside by proving that there is always a time and a place for great food and exceptional service, strip malls be damned.

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