Whenever I wait for a table at a restaurant, especially if it's a long wait, I wonder if it's masochism or optimism. Occasionally I realize I've wasted time; if I'm lucky, the wait proves worthwhile, as was the case with Bella Panini in Palmer Lake.
Friends who regularly dine here suggest arriving soon after its 5 p.m. opening or after 8 p.m. Even they occasionally misjudge, which is what happened on a recent visit when we opted for later, growing increasing hungrier with each passing minute.
We had plenty of opportunity to peruse the menu, so when we were finally seated we knew exactly what to order. We started with insalata di cucina ($8.95). Meant to be served family style, it was plenty for three of us. This is a robust combination of sliced pepperoni, ham, tomatoes, red onions, blue cheese crumbs and mixed greens. The house-made olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing provided a pungent sweetness. The Bella Salad also looked promising with its mix of mandarin oranges, walnuts and bleu cheese. All of the dressings are made in-house and include blue cheese, raspberry vinaigrette, ranch, Italian and goat cheese.
House-made focaccia, with the balsamic dressing for drizzling, was much appreciated - and not just because we were famished. The bread was light and a great means for sopping up the dressing.
The menu features pizza, panini - no surprise given the name - and pasta. The latter is where Bella Panini veers from the traditional Italian restaurant offerings. Yes there's spaghetti and lasagna, which I am sure are very good, but I was more intrigued by the less standard entrees.
Four chicken dishes might be considered three too many, but not here. I had trouble deciding between the rosemary Parmesan chicken, the Tuscan chicken and the hazelnut chicken Milanese. For anyone counting, the fourth offering was chicken saltimbocca.
I ultimately went for the Tuscan ($13.25), which was a substantial serving of diced chicken and mushrooms in a creamy sun-dried tomato pesto sauce, augmented by slivers of fresh basil, served over al-dente gemelli pasta (short, twisted strands of spaghetti). I had enough leftovers for a meal the next day.
The other pasta dish we ordered was the stuffed pasta roll ($14.50). This is a variation on lasagna, if it was rolled instead of layered. Italian sausage, spinach, mushrooms and carrots are wrapped in long 1-inch strips of pasta. The result is a plate of three saucer-size rolls all bathed in the sun-dried tomato pesto cream sauce. It, too, is a hefty serving.
A fish special is offered daily. On our visit it was grouper ($15.95), served with a balsamic sauce. Rather than having it served over pasta we opted for grilled vegetables. The mild fish absorbed the flavors of the sauce and veggies, which included artichokes, red and green peppers, onions, tomatoes and capers. The latter provided a pleasant tart taste that meshed well with the sauce.
Since the tiramisu is made in-house, we had to try it - and I am glad we did. Thickly frosted with fresh whipped cream, this was a practically weightless spongey cake with a dusting of cocoa powder.
Staff is courteous. Our server kept water glasses filled, checked on our progress without being obsequious and quietly removed our plates of remaining food to package for us to take home. By the end of the evening, the memory of waiting for a table was nothing more than a hazy remembrance. It is possible to call ahead to get your name on the waiting list. However, as we saw, it didn't help the small group that did so. They waited just as long as we did and we all ended up at tables at the same time.