Off and On
Can Bellagio combine thoughtful food and thoughtful service?
Bellagio Italian Bistro
6507 Jester, 346-8228
Monday-Saturday, 5:30pm till "roughly 10 or 10:30pm"
Bellagio has been in business almost six years, and over that time, it has developed a loyal clientele of upper-crust folks who live in the hills behind it. Part of its charm lies in its gorgeous and inviting bar and elegantly stylish interior, neither of which would you guess from its location in a strip mall. The tables are nicely set with white tablecloths and spaced widely enough to allow normal conversation without having to whisper your private thoughts. There is also enough acoustic intervention that you never have to yell to be heard.
On a recent early Monday evening, the restaurant was virtually empty. We ordered a Manhattan ($7.75), which was mixed perfectly, if not ideally chilled. At the same time, we tried two appetizers. The Pizza Rustica Potatiè Panchetta ($12) was an appetizing idea, apart from its odd spelling (it should be patate è pancetta). The description of sautéed potatoes with pancetta, caramelized onions, roasted garlic, and mozzarella and Parmesan cheese on a thin pizza crust sounded delicious. Unfortunately, the pizza itself came out with the cheese caramelized, the potatoes shriveled from the heat, the crust undercooked, and the whole thing overly salty. Luckily, the other appetizer, Calamari Bellagio ($9), was much better. The squid was quite tender, and the tomato/pesto sauce added a nice acidic counterpoint.
Bellagio prides itself on making all of its pastas by hand. The Ravioli of the Day ($21) was stuffed with several cheeses and dressed with a tomato sauce, a simple preparation that should allow the ingredients to shine through. The sauce was unobtrusive without being very memorable, but the ravioli tipped us off to what would be a problem throughout the rest of the meal: The pastas were all gummy. Handmade pastas can become gummy for a lot of reasons, and I won't hazard a guess as to what went wrong. However, I will say that the ingredients deserved more respect than the kitchen was offering.
Another dish, Gamberetti con Funghi ($21), featured several sizable shrimp with mushrooms and snap peas in olive oil and garlic with a substantial hit of lemon juice served over equally troubled fettuccine. The best entrée of the evening was Beef Braciola ($16), a plate of food big enough to feed three hungry people. Three very tender flank steaks were pounded and rolled with prosciutto, cheese, pine nuts, parsley, and a hard-boiled egg, then topped with cheese and served with tomato sauce. The only letdown was that the dish came on a bed of tacky spinach fusilli.
We matched all of the dishes with a delicious bottle of Pecotta Syrah ($35). Our desserts were very good. The Crème Brûlée ($8) was creamy and perfectly textured, while the Italian Cream Cake ($7) had a delicious texture and spicy flavors. Throughout, our server was exceptional in every way, serving in a timely manner, always offering helpful information, and stopping by to check frequently but also unobtrusively.
We are firm believers that a restaurant that is open for business should have its A-team on the floor. But we are also aware that some chefs take Monday nights off, so we decided to give the kitchen a second chance. We went back on a Thursday night with friends, arriving at about 8:15. This time, the restaurant was mostly full with a happy, older, well-dressed crowd. Our goal besides evaluating the restaurant was to have a relaxing night with good friends.
Our server appeared, told us the specials, and asked for drink orders. I asked for advice on two Barberas to see if he knew the wine list, and he did. We ordered a bottle of Greco di Tufo ($42) for a white and Sant'Agata Barbera d'Asti Superiore ($34) for a red. He properly offered a taste of the white, but then proceeded to pour nearly the entire bottle into our four glasses. This creates two problems for the customer: You can't swirl a full glass, and the wine warms too quickly. The benefit for the server is that he doesn't have to come back too often to see if you need a refill. He then opened the red wine and poured it. One sniff and the ugly aroma of wet cardboard was a giveaway that the wine was clearly corked. He took the bottle away. When he returned a few minutes later, it was to inform us that we should feel lucky that the bartender agreed with us. Unless a bottle of wine is very rare and old, there is no cost to a restaurant to return a defective bottle to the original distributor. Therefore, this awkward moment gained the restaurant nothing and left everyone at the table scratching their head and wondering why the waiter would act this way. At any restaurant offering wine service, this type of behavior is just inappropriate. For a restaurant that aspires to the level of quality that Bellagio does, it is a major issue.
We ordered three appetizers. Mozzarella Pane ($7) was four thick slices of bread with mozzarella cheese between and an herbed oil sauce. It was so good, we asked for extra bread to soak up the sauce. Gamberetti Caponata ($10) featured four large chilled shrimp with a fantastic ragout of eggplant, tomatoes, olives, and capers. The Mussels Genovese ($9) were small but fresh in a delicious rich basil sauce. We were enjoying the good food and good conversation when the waiter appeared with his pad in hand. Our companion politely informed him that we wanted to make the evening last, were in no hurry, and would like to take our time. The server looked at him and said, "Well, our chef is getting antsy and wants all the orders in." After getting a rather dark look from the table, he recanted and said that we should take our time and enjoy our evening. The time was 9:15, and the restaurant was supposedly open till "roughly 10 or 10:30pm."
Our entrées were all delicious and well made. The highlight was the Baked Risotto ($16), a risotto made with mushrooms, mozzarella, leeks, and shallots, then wrapped in thinly sliced eggplant and fashioned into a lovely dome and baked. The eggplant perfumed the risotto and held in the moisture to make a delicious dish. We also loved the Duck Ivrea ($23), slices of meltingly moist duck breast on a bed of vegetables and apples. The Grilled Steak of the Day ($30) was a 16-oz. rib eye rubbed with garlic and topped with thin, crispy onion rings and cooked exactly as ordered.
While we were finishing our meal, lights were going on and off, tables were being reset for the following day, staff were going home. It seemed obvious that we were overstaying our welcome. Our first visit, we had thoughtful service and thoughtless food, and on our second visit, we had just the opposite. If Bellagio could consistently have both food and service meet their potential, it could be one of Austin's better white tablecloth restaurants. As it is, it's halfway there.
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