Oct 11, 2010

Sinking Feeling at Pizza Bella

Restaurant: Pizza Bella
Location: 1810 Baltimore, KC MO
Food: Wood-fired pizzas
Service: Unremarkable waitstaff
Atmosphere: Tiny. Somehow vibrant & cold at once.
Price: $9 - $14 pizzas. A little steep.
Rating: One napkin. Barely.

Kansas City doesn't do pizza very well.

Now that I have your attention, let me qualify that statement. In other cities across the country, Neapolitan pizza (pizza napoletana) has had a huge uprising. We're talking freshly made crusts, pies with simple, artisinal toppings (and not too many of them), cooked in a brick or wood fire oven at super high heats, not a pizza conveyor. We're talking freshness, chewy-but-crispyness, and hints of char flavor. We're talking long handled pizza boards that slide delicious pies into and out of ovens with a learned dexterity. We're talking pizzas made with love.

Kansas City has a lot of Americanized chain pizza places, but there are really only about three different Neapolitan-style pizza places here: Spin!, Blue Grotto and Pizza Bella.

As I grow older, I find this style of pizza far more refreshing and enjoyable than its thick crusted, heavily topped counterpart that made up such a big part of my childhood (approximately 1/8 of my body is made of Little Caesar's).

So when I found a discounted gift certificate for Pizza Bella online recently, I jumped on it. And last Saturday evening, after taking in "The Social Network" (really good and interesting movie), we went for a long-awaited visit.

Pizza Bella's status has been a bit shaky lately. Its ownership may have changed, but I haven't been able to confirm. Those familiar with Rob Dalzell's other establishments including 1924 Main, Souperman and Yummo know that a run of unfortunate circumstances have led all three to close, so there were lots of rumors Pizza Bella would bite the dust, too.

A quirky location would seem to be bad for business. They're located in a bit of a no man's land half-way between the Crossroads and P&L. I personally like the spot, but there is no foot traffic there and if you're trying to cut through downtown expeditiously, you most likely aren't driving down Baltimore, either. So it's rather hidden.

Those who seek it out, however, find a quaint little spot with big front windows and a modern-chic interior of tasteful wood, painted concrete, white curtains and bright red accent chairs. A tiny bar sits just inside the entrance and the hearth of the restaurant, its wood fired oven, is in the southwest corner wafting delicious aromas that immediately induce salivation. For my taste, the place could use a little more of the wood accents on the walls for increased warmth, and sound deadening materials would be nice, too. But overall, this is a tastefully designed dining environment.

On our trip, we were afflicted with the misfortune of sharing a server with a large birthday party. These were 30 somethings with a white limo parked out front who were clearly excited to be away from their kids for the first time in forever and not used to drinking the amount of alcohol they may have consumed at such parties in their younger days. They were tipsy and unbearably obnoxious. Increasingly so as the night went on.

Needless to say, attention to our needs was lacking. Eventually our water arrived in a pretty bottle and we hastily ordered beers (Boulevard Pale Ale and a Stout). We were elated to find Brussels sprouts among the appetizers and upon our server's recommendation, ordered them plus the Butter Lettuce salad. The server was wrong about the portion of the Brussels sprouts, though, which was large and incredibly filling. By the time we finished them and the salad, we were full.

They were worth it, though. Piping hot, served straight from the oven in a ceramic dish, the Brussels were covered in pancetta vinaigrette and parmesan, flavored with cranberries, almonds and their own char. Absolutely killer. Brussels sprouts cooked this way are my all-time favorite vegetable, hands down (hey family - get ready to see those on the Thanksgiving table, by the way).

The salad was, unexpectedly, overdressed with a creamy white dressing. Described as "anchovy lemon vinaigrette," we thought it would have been less... opaque. Maybe it was the anchovies? Regardless, there was too much of it. Otherwise, the butter lettuce would have been nicely crisp and we could've actually tasted the shaved fennel, sliced radish and chives also mixed in. Great recipe, poor execution.

This unfortunate execution was, sadly, the theme of our mushroom pizza, as well. What would have been a beautiful, thin, crispy crust was reduced to a soggy goo. Caramelized onions, themselves, are a wet, soggy ingredient which would have been okay, but the mushrooms must have gone onto the pie raw and when mushrooms are first cooked, they release most of their water, which makes up 90% of the mushroom itself. This dirty-tasting water seeped into the crust and reduced it to an unrecognizable mush. A tragic murder of an otherwise delicious pizza.

Pizza Bella has all the earmarks of a good restaurant concept that just hasn't been maintained. Nearly everything in our trip was lacking. The entire experience felt like competing in a sports match in which we were losing by an insurmountable margin and failure was a foregone conclusion.

Walking out, we agreed that despite a theoretically good menu and mostly nice dining room, we weren't likely to return. At least not on our own dime. I'd love nothing more than to hear scuttlebutt that a new owner or new chef was pumping life back into the place, but I fear it's more likely I'll hear of it closing instead. I like Pizza Bella, but I'm not sure Pizza Bella likes me back.

Rating: one napkin. barely.

Pizza Bella on Urbanspoon


Jeffrey said...

I've eaten the mushroom pizza there too and wasn't a huge fan. I did like the appetizer on the menu for the various kinds of meat (prosciutto, salami and something else) with mustard and some bread.

smh said...

They changed owners last spring when Dalzell fled town.

I agree the butter lettuce has become overdressed--it is unfortunate, it used to be outstanding.

The brussel sprouts are incredible!

Go back, try another pizza--the mushroom is not the best. The Margherita is superb, among others.

KCNapkins Guy said...

Thanks, SMH. Do you know who the new owner is?

I'll let you know if/when we go back. A good Margherita pizza sounds great right now.

LB said...

I had the leek pizza and it was quite good. It's been some time since I've been there, but it was good then. I'd be interested to know what you think of it.

I agree with you and SMH - brussel sprouts = wicked good.

Ricco's at College & Quivira makes a good pizza in their wood-fired stone oven. Nice atmosphere, good wine list, and cozy. Not really Neapolitan pizza, but they do good things there. You should check it out!

Michael said...

I agree that it is mediocre. Sadly, it is also the best that Kansas City has to offer. Dining in this town is dismal, and pizza is no exception. Luckily, I can make a pizza at home better, and more cheaply, than any of these places can. Of course that doesn't do much when I'm out of the house or in a hurry.

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