Kobe rib cap with onions and parsley is one of the featured dishes at Bella Piatti in Birmingham. )
Walk into Bella Piatti, the new restaurant in gallery-like space in downtown Birmingham, and the first thing that strikes the eye is a long wooden table centered with a bouquet of fresh roses.
It's not that the contemporary Italian restaurant is expecting a large party to walk through the door. It's the communal table, and it is just one of several close-seating elements that sets the month-old spot apart from the crowd. If you don't like proximity to your fellow citizens, this is probably not the place for you.
But then you'd miss an appealing a la carte menu — and an all-Italian wine list with a number offered in two portion sizes — both just as distinctive as the rustic setting.
From the sliced, cured meats at the appetizer bar to an array of interesting small plates, typified by grilled Monterey sardines, not the little canned ones, but fresh fish with white meat easily pulled from the bones, smoked corn on the cob sprinkled with pecorino cheese, and a trio of on-the-vine tomatoes with creamy burrata cheese and fresh basil, a twist on the classic Caprese salad, it's a one-of-a-kind menu.
The bill of fare is in the hands of executive chef Dan Campbell, who is also involved in the kitchen at VanHellemont's other restaurant, Tallulah Wine Bar & Bistro, a few blocks north on Bates Street. Among creative options is an appetizer of deliciously tart heirloom apples cut in small cubes and teamed with chopped celery root and celery hearts and a toss of cashew nuts, a sort of deconstructed Waldorf salad.
In fact, it would be easy to put together an entire meal from the starters. But then you'd miss the pastas, neat little ensemble productions combining, for instance, long, delicate ribbons of trenette pasta with chanterelle mushrooms, a few kernels of corn and speck (seasoned Italian bacon). The dish was my favorite in two visits.
Other pastas include a robust mix of orecchiette (little ears) with miniature meatballs made of lamb, with the bitter green vegetable rapini as counterpart. Pastas are not served in heaping portions, but in reasonably sized servings, meant not as an entree but as just part of the meal.
Entrees come from the wood grill and rotisserie in the gleaming kitchen. They are the most expensive items, from big meaty lamb chops with garlic and mint ($38) to a massive 34 ounce porterhouse steak given its Italian spin with lemon and extra-virgin olive oil. It's also massively priced, at $70, but it serves more than one.
Side dishes ($6-$8) are classically simple, as accompaniments should be. They include a pristine green salad dressed with nothing more than oil and vinegar, green beans enlivened with anchovy, and golden brown cubes of rosemary-scented roasted potatoes served in little cast iron pots.
The pots are one of many appealing scene-setting details along with soft white cotton dish towels used as napkins and place mats, wooden bowls and plates for appetizers, the brown-bag paper on which the menu is printed, and even the retro plaid shirts on the bartenders.
Given the many unfamiliar terms listed on the menu without explanation, it helps that the servers are able to translate such listings as ricotta cavatelli, wild boar sugo, spinach, or treviso, bacon, garum, garlic,for those who didn't bring their food dictionaries along.
With elbow-to-elbow seating at an appetizer bar in the center of the room, where prosciutto is sliced and plates of other cured meats, including bresaola and capicola, are assembled, and also at the larger U-shaped cocktail bar, proprietor Mindy VanHellemont has taken full advantage of the tight dimensions. Tables for two along one wall are so close together they might as well be communal, too.