Past the regal lion fountain, where water cascades over an exalting cherub in a tile-lined bath, is a welcoming colonnade. There, tumbled marble tiles lead from valet parking through wrought-iron gates to a wide, carved wooden door where light sparkles through leaded glass. Welcome to Villa Bellini.
The 1929 space, long the home of the popular Tio Pepe, has undergone a handsome facelift. Marble busts peek out from indented mosaic-lined niches. Chandeliers, wrought-iron work and tufted leather banquettes abound. New fan windows create an arched silhouette, and carpet has given way to rich, dark wood floors. Huge, ornate gold mirrors reflect the light from candles and sconces.
There are statues and arches and beams and elaborate fireplaces, plus wood and leather everywhere. One of several private dining rooms is a wine cellar that sports a huge wooden table topped with two enormous candelabra. It’s the Neapolitan palazzo of chef-owner Ciro Mancini’s dreams.
Ciro (pronounced CHEER-oh) Mancini is indeed cheery. He works the room like a seasoned pol, knowing there’s a well-drilled brigade churning out his dishes in the kitchen. He’s not in chef’s whites, but he’s obviously in complete control, greeting guests like old friends, and clearly in his element.
He’s transported the menu, which proved so popular when he was at Pensare in Dunedin, virtually intact (prices included). The differences are ones of scale and refinement. Whereas Pensare seats 80 and has a casual vibe, Villa Bellini is refined and four times the size — the granite-topped bar alone can handle 28.
There are no culinary fireworks here, but rather a representation of all that is best in the traditions that make Italian cuisine the world’s most popular.
Bellini's bread is good indeed. The crust is crisp and flaky with a billowy white crumb that’s just perfect for dipping in the oil-and-herb bowl that comes in tow, floating a few delicious green olives. The kitchen also sends out an amuse bouche that’s a product of Mancini’s home of Napoli. Cresciuta is a fried yeast dough; this version is really a crisp seaweed fritter. It’s an interesting tidbit.
All entrées include a cup of the zuppa del giorno or a choice of salad. Our homemade soup of the day is garbanzo bean; the broth is savory, even if the beans border on a bit too soft. My table doesn’t object and slurps away. I love Ciro’s arugula salad, but decide to try the insalata mista instead. A spring mix of crisp lettuces with plum tomatoes and cucumbers is dressed perfectly at the table by your server with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It’s simple, but delicious in its freshness, especially with cracked pepper that drops from a mill the size of a billy club.
The parmigiana melanzane appetizer layers thinly sliced eggplant with mozzarella and homemade tomato sauce. It’s a lesson in balance. The eggplant is luscious, without any bitter notes that can plague this sometimes difficult veggie. The creamy cheese oozes, and the sweet acidity of the sauce brings the whole dish together in a crescendo that has neurons firing.
Sautée cozze simply sizzles mussels with extra virgin olive oil, white wine, cherry tomatoes and garlic. The heady broth will have you reaching for the bread basket to soak up the delicious nectar, because the crisp crostini are over-matched and need the carbohydrate cavalry to come to the rescue so that not a single drop remains.
I’m already on record as adoring the mediterraneo starter — sizzling butterflied shrimp with natural juices and black salt (hold the spicy marinara sauce). Simple, but unforgettable.
For entrées, the Gnocchi Rossella with creamy gorgonzola and the veal saltimbocca (enrobed in buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto di parma) still delight. Cernia Luciana is a beautiful grouper fillet sautéed in white wine and extra virgin olive oil enriched with slivered onions, capers and small black Italian gaeta olives. The fish is just a tad past perfection, but the silky sauce is a harmonious complement to the firm white fillet and just makes you want another bite; all that’s missing is a Mediterranean sunset.
The seasonal vegetables that accompany the entrées are spot-on: roasted herbed potatoes, sweet carrots that retain their crunch, and beautiful cauliflower florets all tied together with a tangle of caramelized onions.
Bellini’s offers conventional non-Italian but popular desserts — cheesecake and creme brûlée — plus a terrific moist limoncello cake. But my table insists on a thin, crisp cannoli shell filled with enticing stracciatella (literally “torn apart”). Leave it to the Italians to use such an operatic image to describe chocolate chips. The light vanilla filling is dotted with cocoa bits, which add a hint of crunch to the exquisite cream.
The tiramisu comes layered in its own round glass container. The dark brown cocoa top yields to delicious sweetened mascarpone and elegant espresso-soaked ladyfingers; it’s a luscious version of this modern Italian favorite and worthy of Villa Bellini’s lovely new digs.