In 1995, when I lived in DC, I used to eat at a place near Dupont Circle called City Lights. This isn't a review of City Lights, but it does go one step closer to proving a hypothesis I came up with there: At all but the most super-fantastic places, appetizers are better than entrees.
This is a review of Bella Bella, in Tallahassee, and nowhere have I seen the appetizer vs. entree distinction so starkly displayed.
Bella Bella is 100% Tally cute, from the homemade sign and painted windows to the mismatch mix of tables and chairs. It's a neighborhood joint, and carries all the cheery warmth that comes with that. The food is Italianish, mostly sandwiches and salads at lunch and mostly pasta at dinner. There's a chalk board with specials, but you get the sense that these are on a pretty fixed rotating schedule, not the inspiration of chefs after a morning shop at the farmer's market.
I've been to Bella Bella a handful of times, and have had exactly the same experience each time: eat more than I should of lovely steaming italian bread and whipped butter; order an exquisite if also too-heavy appetizer, and then -flop- get a giant dish of blah. This is followed by a selective memory operation in which I forget the blah, remember the exquisite, and, in another 6 months, I'm at it again.
For this trip, the exquisite was the Bubble Bread, a huge plate of Italian bread, lathered with butter and roasted garlic, covered with Gorgonzola and Mozzarella, baked until the cheese is gooey and bubbling and served with a small bowl of marinara. Probably 3 days worth of calories on that plate alone, but it was totally worth it.
The blah was the special, Penne Puttanesca, which was run of the mill penne rigate , slightly overcooked, in a bland, slightly creamy tomato and beef sauce.
This was confusing, since the really great thing about a good puttanesca is the salty complexity of olives, tomatoes and peppers together. I've eaten it with capers, artichoke hearts, even a little sausage, but universally the things that make up a puttanesca are salty and tart. It's sort of an antipasto in a bowl, where a good, hearty pasta can cut through the acidity and deliver a really pleasing balance.
Trying to critique the Bella Bella puttanesca is like critiquing the audio quality of a toothpick. It was an entirely different thing than its name suggested, lacking in complexity, lacking in character.
All that said, I'm likely to end up back there some day. The place has a certain pull, and there are definitely days when a neighborhood joint with good warm bread and a friendly bustle sound perfect. But next time: only appetizers.