We drove up and down Decoto Road trying to find Cafe Bellisimo, which one of my tipsters had described as one of Union City's hidden gems. It was hidden, all right. We'd stumbled into one of MapQuest's Bermuda Triangles, and by the time I'd passed favorites like Pho Pasteur II and China Tofu for the third time, I was starting to get a little testy.
Then we took an off street, circled behind the mall, and behold! A fenced-off triangular patio with linen-clad tables and a fluttering wind-folded banner sign.
Hunger aside, we couldn't have come at a better time. Summer nights are the perfect time to dine just outside the tiny Italian restaurant -- the patio abuzz with diners, the torches lit. After my first meal, though, which was enjoyable but not particularly Italian Italian, something about the name nagged at me. Ah, right, it needs another S.
If that makes you suspect that Cafe Bellisimo isn't owned by Italians, you're right. Federico Rodrigues, who originally hails from Venezuela, left cooking school in Miami to work with an Italian chef who had cooked for the pope and Aristotle Onassis. After many years, he moved to Union City to open his own restaurant, Chef's Cellar, with one of his sisters. Federico later married Bonnie, one of his co-workers; the couple took over the business two years ago, changed the decor and the name, and ecco -- Cafe Bellisimo, specializing in northern Italian food.
On that first visit, the patio proved to be a bit drafty for my tastes, so we settled inside. The owners have warmed the thirty-seat room with pumpkin-colored walls and shined it up with glossy marble floors. A short half-wall fences off the tiny open kitchen, and the cooks and regulars lobby comments back and forth over it all night.
The first thing the waiter brought to our table was a warm, round loaf of bread. Poor guy -- he snatched his hand back just in time. The loaf was just big enough for a party of three, and came with a ramekin of olive oil whizzed up with sun-dried tomatoes and a few dried chiles. We drizzled the oil profligately over the slices of soft, eggy bread and then focused on the menu, which is split into appetizers and salads, pasta dishes, and entrées. Smartly, the selection isn't too big to overwhelm the chef, who keeps himself interested by designing a few daily specials, many of them in an Asian fusion vein.
Entrées (not pastas) come with soup or salad -- the salad simple mixed greens in a saucy little vinaigrette; the soup cream of carrot on both of my visits. Some carrot soups call forth so much sugar from the carrots that they deserve to be topped with mini marshmallows, but Bellisimo's chef brought out the root's other side, the side that hangs out with roast meats.
The soup showed off Chef Rodrigues' strong palate, which was evident throughout both meals. His flavors are bright and brassy, but by and large they're well balanced, with few off flavors sticking out.
I only brave caprese salad in summer. There's not much to it -- the cafe's classic rendition featured a few slabs of red and gold tomatoes, little balls of fresh mozzarella, and a liberal splash of a rich balsamic vinegar -- so there's no point ordering it unless the tomatoes are perfect. Which, in late August, they were. For a final note, the chefs had scattered chopped basil and parsley all over the plate. Another à la carte appetizer, the spinachi salad, added strawberries to a honey-walnut vinaigrette, crossing over from first to last course.
The best appetizer was the poached asparagus with grilled polenta in a gorgonzola fondue. Like a jog to the ice-cream store, the asparagus was just a cheap justification for the cream sauce covering the plate. We used the polenta triangles to mop up the cheesy, blue-ishly pungent sauce.
Rodrigues cuts his homemade pappardelle into wide, paper-thin sheets of pasta that fold around huge sea scallops. The silky pasta is thickly sauced -- perhaps a bit too thickly -- with crab meat and a vodka-cream sauce reddened by tomatoes. The flavor of the scallops comes through, but tomatoes crowd out the vodka flavor that hovers around the edges, a sweetish, hard-alcohol-bitterness.
Bellisimo's most unusual pasta dish turned out to be the highlight for me. For the cartoccio, the chef seals linguine and assorted seafood -- clams, mussels, prawns -- into a parchment half-moon with a little garlic, a little fresh oregano, and a little white wine. In the oven the mollusks open, the prawns redden, and all their juices commingle. When the pasta comes to the table in a large bowl, the waiter cuts it open like a diva launching into her best-known song, confident of the applause to come. The steam clears away to reveal plump seafood, al dente pasta, and a light, herbal sauce.
Entrées take much the same tack as the appetizers -- bold flavors fit together nicely. The marsala sauce on Rodrigues' scallopini di chef, a classic saltimbocca of veal topped with prosciutto and sage, was a little sweet for my liking but big on taste, and the thin slices of sautéed veal underneath were deliciously tender. Similarly, moist, lean slices of pork alla Bellisimo were bathed in a rich, honey-sweet red wine reduction sauce. Only the salmone ripieno, a salmon fillet sliced down the middle and stuffed with crab meat, came out overcooked, but a tangy, buttery citrus sauce kept it from becoming too dry.
All three entrées come with a small tangle of sweet-tart braised red cabbage, a mound of eggplant braised down with tomatoes, and a couple of scalloped potatoes. Anchored in the potatoes was a garnish I've never seen before: incense. Piney plumes of smoke folded up from a sprig of rosemary, which stopped smoldering just about the time we were ready to dig in.
What with the bread, the appetizers, and the free soups and salads, making it to dessert takes real stamina. One solution is to order the cloudlike tiramisu -- with just a vague suspicion of the presence of coffee and cocoa, Bellisimo's whipped cream and cake are so light that you'll barely notice them going down.
Bellisimo's waitstaff -- mainly the chef's brother Kiko and his sister Ysglee -- are just plain nice. They're not obtrusive, but they're always aware of what's going on at your table. Cafe Bellisimo may be more Italian in function than form, but in a city with very few upscale restaurants, it's doing a lovely job of filling a need. It does all those things right that a neighborhood bistro is supposed to: comfort and fête you, feed you right, then send you on your way with a big check and a bigger belly.
When I called the owner and manager of Moonlight Chinese Cuisine in San Pablo to interview them for my review of their four-month-old restaurant, they neglected to tell me that they had just sold the establishment and were planning to close. Soon. Last week, in fact. Alas, it seems the empty room I wrote about had been empty a little too long.