When I’m empty and feeling due for some pampering, I head to Island Park Esso. There, on the corner of Wellington Street West and Island Park Drive, a trio of chipper young men descend upon my car at a gallop while I stay in it, dry and cosy, justifying the extra cost with cheering thoughts about supporting nice kids hired to pump gas. (What a good thing.) Besides, it allows me to keep an eye on the goings on across the street and, in particular, their impact on a 22-year-old Italian restaurant I’m fond of.
I had assumed that Bella’s Bistro was clinging to life, just awaiting demolition to make way for the 12-storey Mizrhari Developments condo tower at 1451 Wellington. The red brick house that houses Bella has been standing sentry at 1445 since 1995. All around it, things come and go. Mostly go. Including the Proshine Car Wash to its immediate west, where now stands a shiny white Mizrahi sales centre, complete with artificial grass and a file of fake yews. According to my young Esso gas attendant, the plan is for Bella’s Bistro to move into the ground floor of the developed tower. “Though it could be years.”
Well now, that was news. I was suddenly hungry for veal with three mustard sauce. And for more information.
And what a pleasure to be back after so many years. Run by Raffaela (‘Bella’) Milito and her family, Bella’s offers what it’s always offered: a comfortable-enough space, kind service, and food that is utterly oblivious to fashion. Bread (made in house, delicious one night, a tad stale another) is escorted with his and hers piped butter rosettes. Veal sausages (studded with fennel, with a soft peppery heat) are garnished with a wee tomato speared with a sprig of thyme. Shrimp come wrapped in prosciutto on a puff pastry slab, sauced with an amaretto cream — just as they were decades ago. Indeed, you don’t come here for innovation; you come for Bella’s signature dishes, her old-school Italian food, rich and comforting, found on a menu that rarely changes.
A Caesar salad ticks the required boxes – crisp Romaine, chewy bacon, lashings of parmesan and a dressing with garlic-anchovy-lemon oomph. There’s carpaccio, and though there’s nothing memorable about it, its essential elements are in good form. A bowl of pasta pouches are filled with lobster and crab and bathed in a sweet pepper-tomato sauce, perfumed with tarragon. Spinach linguine is soft and smooth, but still with bite, draped with house smoked salmon and capers.
We stick with veal for our mains, and opt to pay a bit extra for pasta aglio e olio (slick with garlic and oil) rather than spuds. The meat is pounded thin and very tender, smothered in a mushroom-tarragon sauce, the brown on the plate brightened with snappy vegetables.
The sabayon cake I remember from the Ritz chain of restaurants (where Milito used to be chef) is still a Bella signature sweet — a dense, dark, flourless confection. And though the cake is still good, a pedestrian sauce brings it down. We prefer the tiramisu, enjoyed on the patio one evening, shielded from the traffic (the sales centre, and Esso station) by a black iron fence, crawling with ivy and bright with geraniums.
Bella’s Bistro has weathered her corner of Westboro-West Wellington well, serving the neighbourhood for more than two decades. And though our server wasn’t certain about the future, or wisely chose not to speak of it, if the plan to tuck into the tower remains, it seems she may continue to do so for a while longer.