Don’t be fooled by the simplistic appearance of the outside of Bellini Grill. The inside of 220 South 16th Street is full of vine-covered awnings, potted plants, and murals of the Italian Countryside that will have you second-guessing your whereabouts. Jimmy Daku, Executive Chef and owner of this charming BYOB, brings together innovative Italian cuisine and traditional fare. Once you experience his creations, you will wind up wondering if you’ve stumbled upon an Italian family dinner. Whether coming from a show at the Kimmel Center, taking a break from a downtown shopping excursion, or looking for an affordable place to dine with the family, don’t pass up a meal at the Bellini Grill.Read More ...
Located on 16th Street, just south of Walnut and around the corner from the Kimmel Center, the Bellini Grill’s Italian-colored exterior is hard to miss. Although from the outside, with its large, rectangular, reflective windows, green awning and red block lettering, the restaurant has a somewhat sterile appearance, the inside is extremely unique, with decor that gives you the feeling that you’re dining on an outdoor patio in the Tuscan countryside.
Although he is originally from Albania, Executive Chef Jimmy Daku is most passionate about the similar cuisine of his neighboring country, Italy. He studied at a culinary school in Milan, and, inspired by his mother and grandmother’s passion for food and cooking, he opened Bellini Grill in the spring of 2001. In a nod to his love for art and creativity, he named it after the great Venetian painter, Giovanni Bellini.
When my companion and I enter, the host immediately greets us, ushers us to a set of tables in the corner of the room, and tells us to take our pick. We opt for a table in the corner with couch-like seating. Looking up, the ceiling extends very high, and a sheer, red, floral curtain drapes down to the back of the couch, adjacent to the wall. The couch is covered with Persian-pink, decorative upholstery and lined with carnation-colored silk pillows. I take a seat on the couch, sandwiched between the small, soft pillows, which add comfort without being invasive.
To my left is a service station with a polished wood counter and festive red and white poinsettia arrangements resting in vases on top of it. Behind it is a wall lined with framed pictures of coffee cups and the word “Espresso” scattered around, sending me into a split-second double take to ensure that we are, in fact, in a restaurant and not an Italian cafe. Above the service station is a beige awning covered with vines and dangling bunches of red and white grapes. Several potted plants rest above the awning, providing a garden-like feel.
My eyes scan to the right, to a giant painting of the Italian countryside. Several similar paintings surround it, some which contain houses with faded red facades, wooden shutters on the windows, and balconies with potted plants and dangling laundry. We feel as if we are in an Italian villaggio. Scattered on the wall are several antique-looking mirrors with elaborate gold frames, one bearing a heart-shaped painting of a woman and a fairy, making me feel as if we could be at someone’s Italian grandmother’s house as well.
The Italian music has a romantic feel, and is vibrant and upbeat with the sounds of a string guitar adding a classical vibe. Our server, Julia, greets us immediately with her Albanian accent, and eyeing the bottle of wine on the table, offers to open it. My companion and I have brought two bottles to prepare for a variety of taste combinations. We opt to start off with the light-bodied PIO Chianti, Colli Senesi 2005, after noting the wide selection of seafood appetizers on the menu.
The menu, which is one page and seemingly unassuming, is divided into two categories, Primi (first) and Dopo (after). However, upon closer inspection there are over a dozen appetizer options and three times as many entree selections, offering a wide variety of fish, veal, chicken, and pasta, with assorted options for vegetarians. We order, this time from the host, two appetizers: Clams in White Sauce, and Escargot.
As we sip our wine, which is smooth and light on the palate, our food runner brings us our bread, accompanied with a vegetable medley made of carrots, zucchini, onions, and red peppers in oil, with light seasoning. Spread on the Italian bread, the combination is light, refreshing and unique. Before we even finish our first slices, our appetizers come out.
First come the Clams in White Sauce—served in a rimmed pasta bowl, in a white-wine base that’s light on the oil, with tomatoes, garlic, and basil. Simple, dynamic, and salty, the clams are cooked to perfection. The portion size is just enough for the two of us, and the roasted cloves of garlic make the sauce even better for dipping the bread, after we consume the clams.
Yet another server brings out the Escargot. Although the place is not very crowded, it comes to our attention that the staff—a cultural combination of Albanians, Italians, and Americans—are all our servers, not just Julia. This authentic European dynamic really gives the place a familial vibe.
The Escargot comes in a dish with three white escargot shells, served over more shelled escargot, sautéed in a dark brandy demi-glace with spinach, garlic, and sun-dried tomatoes. The dish rests on a plate where two freshly toasted triangles of crostini lie next to snail tongs and a small fork. While the majority of the escargot meat has been shelled for us, we struggle with the snail extraction from the three shells. Another server, Erida, helpfully offers a toothpick, explaining that sometimes the fork is too wide to smoothly remove the meat. This option works like a charm.
While the spinach adds a significant amount of substance to the dish, the brandy demi-glace offers a light sweetness, the garlic adds zest, and the escargot add a salty aspect. The dish turns out to be subtle on the palate, yet complex, with multiple layers. It is fun to eat as well.
We wait until we are finished with our appetizers to order our entrees, deciding to really take our time—Italian-style. We eventually decide on the Crab Ravioli, a signature dish of Bellini Grill, as well as the Pollo Balsamico, a chicken entree in a balsamic reduction, which Julia informs us is her favorite dish on the menu. A significant amount of time elapses between our appetizers and entrees, allowing us time to digest, sit back and accommodate our palates to our second bottle of wine, a Dragani, Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 2006—a deep red, more robust wine, which is full-bodied and thick. During this period, we relax, as opera takes over the previously more upbeat music, kicking a degree of Italian passion into the atmosphere.
Our relaxation turns to anticipation as the food runner comes our way with the Crab Ravioli. A picture-perfect dish—five large, pink, raviolis nestle in a creamy pesto sauce, garnished with two crisscrossed green onions. Erida, given our approval, tops it with newly grated parmesan and freshly ground black pepper. Although the creamy pesto sauce is rich, full of flavor and stimulating, the crabmeat stuffing still manages to shine through with sweetness, and a hint of underlying spice. It is blended smoothly, which gives it a melt-in-the-mouth texture. Even the pasta, which is pink due to simmering in a tomato-base, has a unique flavor. While extremely invigorating, the dish is also very rich, and I decide to take a break, and try the Pollo Balsamico.
The Pollo Balsamico comes on a plate with the chicken breast resting in the center, topped with caramelized red onions and Portobello mushrooms. It is on a bed of grilled vegetables, and smothered in a twelve-year-old balsamic reduction. The veggies are various, including carrots, squash, zucchini, red and green peppers and tomatoes, as well as three, small, halved red potatoes, and parsley to garnish. The chicken, literally is tender enough to cut with a fork, and juicy enough to dissolve on the tongue. The balsamic reduction is a perfect blend of sweet and acidic, while the zucchini and the mushrooms add a soft, yet hearty texture and the red peppers and carrots add a bit of umph and crunch. The whole dish is so dynamic and tender, it simultaneously awakens my taste buds and relaxes my mouth.
Since the dishes seem to be getting better and better, my companion and I are almost afraid to order dessert, due to potential taste-bud overload, not to mention satiation. However, despite the necessary need to loosen our belts a bit, how can we resist? The dessert menu has several intriguing, authentic Italian desserts, such as classic Crème Brule and a dessert called Spumoni.
After much deliberation, we decide to order the Spumoni, a traditional Sicilian dessert, which is a combination of vanilla and chocolate ice creams, with a heart of semifreddo hazelnut cream, and candied fruit. It comes out quickly on a plate, in two triangular-shaped portions, which lean lightly against each other. The chocolate layer is sandwiched between the vanilla ice cream and beige hazelnut cream, and it is scattered with embedded, colorful fruit, drizzled with more semifreddo, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The name Bellini, written on the plate in strawberry syrup cursive, really gives the dish a personalized feel. Sweet, fruity, cold and creamy, the dish is all we can imagine to really complete our Italian dining experience.
As we are eating, Executive Chef Jimmy Daku introduces himself and his wife, who we are delighted to discover is actually Julia, our server. He is amicable and charming and habitually checking on the satisfaction of all of his patrons. Elated and euphoric from great food, good wine and a wonderful dessert, we thank him, as well as the remaining staff, feeling like we’re leaving a large family gathering.
Thanks to the BYOB aspect of the restaurant, our bill is very reasonable, especially considering the number of dishes we have been able to try. As we pay, put on our coats, and begin to leave, I glance at my watch, astounded by what I see. We have been so absorbed in the European-mentality of the place that we haven’t even realized we have been there for three hours.
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