This is my third review of Bella Brava. Not many restaurants can claim that dubious honor, and maybe it speaks highly of this restaurant's attempts to adapt to changes in chef, changes in focus and, now, a change in venue. In the six years that Bella Brava has been open, much has changed and much has stayed the same.
This time, however, they may have nailed it.
For instance, the restaurant's new space on Beach Drive manages to keep the vibe of the original location while saving none of Bella Brava's previous look. Instead of a cavernous modern space that made good use of high ceilings and long sight lines, the new Bella Brava is positively cozy, divided into multiple rooms that feel connected and separated at the same time. Instead of chrome and black, there are glass tiles and rich earthy tones. It's gorgeous, although the modern design does come with a few problems.
Bella Brava's front door leads right into the bar, which during the first couple of weeks has been consistently packed. It's like stepping into a sonic wall; voices batted around and amplified by the floor, the chalkboard walls in the back, the windows on the side. It makes conversation difficult, but not impossible, and as everyone starts raising their voices to be heard the noise level builds like a feedback loop. Loud, sure, but it's also impressive, active and lively. A downtown scene.
There's a small dining room off the bar but it seems like the disregarded stepchild of the restaurant. Better rooms lie in the back, accented by artistically irregular brick walls and moody prints. It's quieter back there, but still loud enough to envelop you in a comforting blanket of sound that somehow makes the divided space feel part of a whole.
Bella Brava's menu is a sign of the restaurant's growth and reflects an understanding of its role in the community. When the restaurant first opened, it served modern but distinctly Italian fare that had some rustic edges, cooked by a serious Italian chef. That changed a bit a couple years on, becoming slicker and less rustic, less Italian, then reverted a bit when the restaurant became one of the half-dozen former employers of chef Domenica Macchia.
But now, and perhaps for the first time, Bella Brava's menu finally fits the place perfectly. It's still Italian, but not overly so, and still slick, but not fussy. The dishes are modern but comforting, and prices are eminently reasonable — with most entrees well under $20.
The execution of those dishes also seems to fall into a middle ground. Like beef carpaccio, barely seared with a crust of pepper and topped by peppery arugula. Pretty, if a bit bland — it needs more olive oil and salt — but tasty enough. Rich Gorgonzola cream with homemade potato chips is ideal bar food, while the mussels are simple and well cooked.
Bella Brava's pizza has improved over the years and is at its best in the new space. The crust could use some more crunch, but the red sauce is bright and the house-made mozzarella adds some creamy texture without weighing down the slices. Meat and fish here are inevitably accented with thyme or rosemary, or both, at temperatures that seem to depend more on the vagaries of the kitchen than the order at the table. It's early still, so Bella Brava's kitchen will likely get that under control.
The restaurant has resurrected a dish I fell in love with six years ago, a take on pasta and sausage potpie called rigatoni crostata. The top crust — essentially the same as the pizza dough — is crisp and rich, but the interior is more boring than I expect, the rigatoni flaccid and doused in a red sauce that could use some of the herbs featured on the meat dishes. Once you get done picking out the pedestrian discs of sausage, you'll likely push the rest of the dish aside.
Bolognese is better, the meat accented by sweet spices and spooned over house-made fettuccine, but if meat and pasta is your thing then Bella Brava's short rib ragout is your go-to dish. The meat is dark and fork tender, infused with the same sweet spices as the Bolognese. There's almost too little of the rich braising liquid to coat the ribbons of pappardelle, but be judicious when combining bites of meat with pasta and you'll have enough to go around.
It's still the early days for Bella Brava, but it seems clear that the restaurant has struck a chord with downtown St. Pete regulars. Hop into the bar and you'll see local personalities stream through the door, recognized by name by the exceptionally effective bartending crew. It's packed on weeknights, which may be a sobering sight when seen from the perspective of previous new hot spot Cassis across the road. The food is good, the place feels lively and looks great, and the prices won't be chasing anyone away.
It only took six years, but it looks like Bella Brava has come into its own.
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