Vita Bella Pizzeria & Restaurant
Oaks Shopping Center
1570 Egypt Road, Suite 270
Vita Bella, which recently made its debut in the Oaks Shopping Center, is rather unusual for a new restaurant in these here parts. Unusual? Hell, it practically qualifies as a minor miracle. Believe it or not, Vita Bella, which means “beautiful life” in Italian, is not, I repeat, is NOT a chain eatery!
Photo Credit: Gary Puleo & Times Herald
Vita Bella is independently owned by veteran restaurateur Alessandro Lascaro and his cousin, Damiano Parlanti, and Mr. Parlanti’s brother-in-law, Giulio Mannino. The restaurant is, indeed, a family affair, as Mr. Parlanti & Mr. Mannino’s wives, Caterina and Vincenza, respectively, keep patrons happy with their pleasant service and gracious hospitality.
It would, of course, be an understatement to say that Italian restaurants/pizzerias are immensely popular. Ever wonder how many there are in the United States…? Well, as of March 2014 there were more than 98,000 restaurants that fell into the Pizza, Pasta & Italian Menu category; and these eateries accounted for more than $62 billion in annual retail sales. So the question arises – and it is certainly germane to the subject at hand – do we really need yet another Italian restaurant/pizzeria in our neck of the woods? After all, there are legion in the area… several within a stone’s throw of the newly opened VB.
On the other hand, should the Italian eatery in question be of the superior caliber of Vita Bella, the answer to the aforementioned question would be a resounding “Yes!” But be forewarned… if you’re looking for typically generic Italian/American fare, you would do well to dine elsewhere, as Mr. Lascaro and his associates serve up simple, authentic, made-from-scratch Italian cuisine, in many cases utilizing recipes that are more than 100 years old. The food here – pristinely fresh and alive with flavor – is the real deal; and, believe me, you can taste the difference.
If you’re pressed for time, you can always stop by for a quick lunch, park yourself at the diminutive counter fronting the wood-burning stove, and dig into a personal pizza. And don’t get me wrong… the pizzas, especially the La Capricciosa – tomatoes, mozzarella, artichokes, capers, olives, mushrooms, and Italian ham – are top-notch. But if you really want to see what the kitchen can do, drop in for dinner with your spouse/significant other, tote along a good bottle of red wine (the restaurant is BYOB), and settle in at one of the comfortable tables.
To start things off, bruschetta and crostini offer a wide variety of choices. Although these terms are often confused – and used interchangeably – the major difference is one of size. Crostini, which means “little toasts,” are slightly smaller. Both are made with crispy bread toasted with olive oil and piled high with savory trappings. Pictured is the Bruschetta Del Nonno topped with diced tomatoes, garlic, oregano, fresh basil, and extra virgin olive oil.
In my opinion, however, salads make the most appealing appetizers. Forget the usual bland-leading-the-bland wilted iceberg, anemic tomatoes, and gloppy store-brought dressing. The greenery here is freshly-tossed, authentically innovative, and alive with irresistible combinations of colors, tastes, and textures.
The Insalata Capricciosa, for example, is a fascinating amalgam of butter lettuce, radicchio, tomatoes, diced yellow peppers, and fresh orange segments tossed with an exceptionally flavorful pear balsamic vinegar. More straightforward – but just as delicious – is the Insalata Vita Bella (pictured). Here you have cherry tomato halves and fresh mozzarella taking center stage with torn basil leaves, red onion, and splashes of extra virgin olive oil in strong supporting roles.
The Insalata Di Ceci is another personal favorite. This is basically a chickpea salad, which doesn’t sound terrible exciting… but when spruced up with diced celery, red onion, yellow & red peppers, parsley, extra virgin olive oil, grilled Italian bread, and a dynamite lemon vinaigrette, you have an incredibly tantalizing prelude to your meal.
For a number of reasons, one other bit of greenery, the Cesare Lacinato, deserves mention. This is really a Caesar salad utilizing kale rather than romaine lettuce. Although this may seem unusual, kale has become the latest darling of the restaurant circuit, popping up with faddish regularity on highbrow and lowbrow menus alike. In fact, according to one food service industry survey, there has been a 400 percent increase in kale items appearing on restaurant menus since 2008.
Part of the reason for this, course, is that kale is among the healthiest green leafy vegetables on the planet; and if you’re looking for more fiber in your diet, raw kale is roughage personified. There is a down side, however. The continual ingestion of too much raw kale has been known to cause bouts of peristaltic indisposition, as well as wreak a bit of havoc with your thyroid… But that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying its significant nutritional benefits on occasion.
Fortunately, lacinato, or Tuscan kale, is slightly sweeter and more delicate than regular curly kale and, therefore, also easier on your delicate innards. And Vita Bella’s variation of this classic is really quite excellent. Toasted parmigiana breadcrumbs, hard-cooked egg quarters, and bacon bites all play their individual parts… but it’s an extraordinary Caesar dressing that pulls everything together into a seamlessly seductive gestalt.
As you move on to the main courses, possibilities abound. The pastas, for instance, are absolutely first-rate and offer a variety of appetizing choices. Sampled during our several visits were Ravioligiano, cheese ravioli with tomatoes, parmigiana, and basil; La Boscaiola, rigatoni paired with roasted homemade sausage, mushrooms, zucchini, spinach and eggplant; Emiliana, rigatoni with Bolognese sauce; and a personal fave, Alla Norma (pictured), a delicious combo of penne pasta, diced roasted eggplant, tomatoes, and crown of grated ricotta salata.
The kitchen also offers up two piscatorial options: Spada Giro Tondo, swordfish stuffed with raisins and garlic, which I have not had the pleasure of sampling; and Salmone Crostato, mustard-crusted grilled salmon (pictured), which I have tried, and which is a winner in every respect and highly recommended. The fish is perfectly prepared, that is, cooked through (not translucent at the center), but still remains moist and flaky; the mustard crust adds just enough zip to tantalize the taste buds without overwhelming the natural flavor of the salmon; and the circumscription of grilled vegetables adds a feast for the eye as well as the palate.
But the real test of a fine Italian restaurant is the veal… and Vita Bella passes with flying colors. The kitchen’s Paillard ai Ferri, is a veal scallop that is pounded thin, grilled, and then companioned by tender roasted potatoes and grilled vegetables. And the texture of the veal is just right: tender but with the slightest hint of chewiness; so you know it’s the real deal, not that processed Styrofoam-y/cardboard garbage often served up in many lesser establishments.
The Paillard is excellent… but the kitchen’s claim to fame is most assuredly La Valdostana – its incomparable veal chop. It is stuffed with Italian Ham and Fontina cheese, sautéed in white wine sauce, and crowned with sliced mushrooms. Once again, however, the key to the veal is the texture. The chop is tender, succulent, and definitely of the melt-in-your-mouth variety. Priced at $29.00, it is the most expensive item on the menu, but it is worth every penny. I’ve paid infinitely more for a veal chop (at some highly touted eateries) and received infinitely less. La Valdostana is simply not to be missed.
Desserts, as you would expect, are all homemade. Choices include items like cannoli, tiramisú, pizza Nutella, panna cotta, etc. For my money, though, the Italian ricotta cheesecake has the most to offer. Unlike American versions, Italian cheesecake is made with ricotta rather than cream cheese. It is also lighter and dryer of texture, less filling and less cloying. The perfect conclusion to a perfect meal.
When Vita Bella first opened, it was rather sparsely populated by your basic pizza hounds… But word has gotten around, the restaurant’s website is now up and running, and you are seeing more and more couples and groups – bottles of wine in tow – filling the comfortable dining area and feasting on the extraordinary Italian cuisine.
Vita Bella is an exceptional restaurant and a marvelous addition to the Oaks dining scene. Hope to see you there!