Homeward Bound: Bella Italia, Southend-on-Sea, Essex

P1030575With a penchant for meaty pizzas, a birthday food fest that needed arranging and an impending hen holiday in Rome, it was only natural that I went Italian when celebrating my 25th this March with my girlfriends. I have long looked curiously at chain Bella Italia so I was pleased to finally have an excuse to book a table, opting to phone the Southend branch for a late lunch one Saturday afternoon around my birthday. Although they seemed to have no notification of my booking when I arrived with my group, it was luckily quiet enough that this didn’t matter, and we were still seated with ease, ready to chow down on some delicious Italian grub.

P1030578The ambience of the Southend restaurant was very much elegantly rustic, with stylish nods at an Italian countryside feel, for example a blackboard listing fruit and vegetable market prices. The venue seemed to be divided into varying dining sections utilising stripped wood to section off different areas. Terracotta and peach tones dominated, contrasting the heavy wood presence but creating a really homely yet classy feel, with large chandeliers dipping down to provide a musky light. Assorted jars and bottles served as decoration, homage to the Italian’s love of food and a feature in many Italian venues.

P1030579Settling down at our table of six, we started with the drinks menu, deciding on a bottle of Trebbiano to kick things off, the fresh citrus flavours accompanied by tones of apples and pears. In for the long haul, this was a three courser for sure, so I excitedly began browsing the menu for options. Starters I actually managed to pick pretty quickly for indecisive little me, opting for the Polpette, which is basically little pork and beef meatballs that are baked in a small dish, drenched in a thick tomato based sauce. Topped with cheese and a rustic hunk of ciabatta for dunking purposes. I have to say, this was probably one of my favourite starters that I have eaten, and I’m not usually a starters kinda girl. I love meatballs and these ones were cooked perfectly and faintly spiced which added to the flavour and also enhanced the passata-style sauce. The ciabatta looked a bit like a random afterthought just P1030583thrown on top of the dish, but it was a decent size to allow me to eat with my meatballs and mop up the tasty classic Italian sauce too. It reminded me of a bolognaise type sauce actually, in both consistency and flavour.

For my main course, I can never resist a large, juicy calzone – a great spin on the classic Italian pizza, so I decided to choose the Diavola option, although I have to say I liked the sound of almost all of the calzones! This one though contained N’uja sausage and pepperoni, so salami like meats, as well as chicken, bell peppers, green chillies and onions, served with an arrabbiata sauce, so again tomato based with a fiery bite to complement the chilli. In my opinion, this calzone was distinctly average, and although I enjoyed it, as I enjoy a calzone, I really wasn’t overly impressed. Firstly, the portion size seemed small for a calzone, as they normally come up huge – and I was starving! Secondly, the filling was incredibly sparse, so although the flavours worked well together, you couldn’t actually have a mouthful which combined them all. Meat was especially thin on the ground, as if the chef has been scrimping. I know a calzone is a folded up pizza, so toppings can be in short supply, but calzones are usually more full, so this was rather disappointing not to find more of the ingredients held within the soft and thin pizza dough P1030582casing. The pizza dough itself was delicious and just to my liking. One thing I did like about the main course was the fun plates – once I had mopped up my meal, I found a funny slogan ‘Just like mamma makes it’ painted onto the plate in swirled green handwriting. It was a great element of surprise and made me smile at the end of a very so-so main course.

At this point, more wine was in order, and since they had run out of the Trebbiano, we settled on one of my favourites instead, a Sauvignon Blanc, which turned out to be a lot nicer than the Trebbiano, so a result there!  It had a softer texture to drink and was less harsh, also with sweeter undercurrents.

For dessert, I couldn’t take my eyes off the Cookie Dough Lava Cake, a chocolate chip cookie cake with oozyP1030585 chocolate sauce centre, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and drizzles of caramel sauce. This did not disappoint in the slightest, and I thoroughly enjoyed this dessert, tucking in with gusto. The cake itself was moist and studded with large chocolate chip pieces, spearing the dense little cake. The chocolate centre was a pleasant surprise as it leaked slightly when cut, quickly being absorbed in to the surrounding cake. The natural vanilla flavoured ice cream was the perfect accompaniment, acting as a tool to help peel the caramel sauce from the plate, the flavours all working really well in sync with each other. The cake was a nice size too – I was worried it was going to be a little on the thin side, but it came up rather beefy which was great, as I wanted to tuck in with relish. Maybe not a classic Italian dish, but using popular winning flavours, it was always going to be good!

P1030574After the food, I ordered my customary cappuccino.  It was presented nicely and was lovely coffee, so a nice way to conclude the meal. But would I come to Bella Italia again? The menu has a fantastic array of choice, and mulling the online menu a few days beforehand, I was stumped as to what I would eventually pick as I have about five must-try dishes on my list! Despite this, when I received my meal, I was a little let down by the main course, not that I didn’t like it, but I was expecting better. My sister’s pasta dish looked delicious and made me half wish I had gone for the shredded duck pasta instead.

P1030580The service in the Southend venue could also do with brushing up on. Although I had made my reservation on the phone a good month in advance, the waiter at the front of house couldn’t find my reservation and seemed constantly confused about what I was trying to tell him. Not a good start. The waiting staff on the whole were friendly, however they weren’t efficient at taking drinks orders or ensuring that we stayed topped up – our designated driver for example had to ask numerous times just to get one orange juice. We were there in the late afternoon and the restaurant was empty, so not much excuse as to why the service wasn’t up to scratch. Prices were reasonable and what you would expect from a chain, so no complaints there. I’d be keen to visit Bella Italia again to tick off some more of the dishes that I fancy trying, although I think I would visit the Lakeside venue which is a bit nearer home for me and may have better service. We’ll have to wait and see! On the whole though, tasty food and great flavours – I just needed more of it!

P1030584The Dinner Dates Opinion:

Here’s what my friend Robyn made of our meal out:

“Walking into Bella Italia, there was an obvious rustic feel to the restaurant and a very relaxed atmosphere which may have been due to the fact that we did not arrive at peak dinner time. The service also felt extremely relaxed, to the point of being a little slow but the staff were all friendly and polite nonetheless. For a starter, I ordered the Insalata Rosso which consisted of tomatoes, onion, olives and a dressing – good to get the taste buds going but nothing particularly special (but really, what do you expect from a salad?). For main course, I designed my own pizza, adding my choice of two toppings to a standard margherita (chilli and spinach). The pizza itself was delicious and looked homemade which I would imagine, to quote a popular advert here, was just ‘like mama makes’. Overall, the food was enjoyable, the service was satisfactory – but really, I think it’s the company that makes a meal… and let me tell you, I had some rather incredible dinner guests.”

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