You could have knocked me over with a feather. If I hadn't happened across it accidentally while surfing for Il Bellagio's phone number, it never would have occurred to me that there could actually be an Internet forum devoted to — I'm not kidding you — kvetching about the goings-on at CityPlace. Evidently, there's a group devoted to teasing out the minutiae of West Palm's ballyhooed live/shop complex, as in "Why oh why has the nightly fountain show been discontinued?" Or "Our favorite gelato shop has closed! *sob*." And "Whose idea was it to set up the music stage so it blocks the view from MY condo?" (Want to participate in this scintillating debate? Go to westpalmbeach.com/forums.)
Curmudgeon that I am, I painstakingly avoid anything remotely CityPlace-related until I get desperate enough to skulk down to Barnes & Noble. But with out-of-town guests lobbying for a buying spree at Pottery Barn and Williams Sonoma, I'm sometimes tempted to break my fast. Stumbling along at the end of a grueling day of lavish spending, hauling bags full of Caswell Massey body sprays, Anthropologie French country crockery, and Restoration Hardware toothbrush holders, one is beyond hungry by the time the sun goes down.
And there is Il Bellagio, the not-so-still center around which our universe spins. It has outdoor seating next to the plashing fountain, hard by a stage canopy that undoubtedly is blocking somebody's view. A Spanish guitarist thrums. Twinkling patio lights beckon like a glutton's fantasy of caviar on toast points.
Recently, we found ourselves at Il Bellagio's gate, blinking at a sea of fully occupied tables. Within 30 seconds, a maitre d' in the distance had made eye contact. He raised one eyebrow and two fingers. We shook our heads and responded with four. "Come on," he mouthed with a wave. And before we could say carpaccio di manza, he'd settled us at a table with a glass of wine (house Cab, $5.95) and a basket of bread and butter as toasty and crumb-sweet as you could want in this world.
Here was a totally new experience.
My typical restaurant meal usually goes like this: I'm sitting in the foyer, or worse, standing in line, an oversized beeper in my paw. I'm bickering with my spouse about whether the brakes need replacing or whose turn it is to call the roofer. My blood sugar has long since hit its nadir. Never have I needed a martini so badly. Unfortunately, the bar is six-deep with yahoos elbowing out the competition and waving $50 bills. By the time our beeper cheerfully chirps, my life partner and I are ready to remake our lives with other partners.
I regularly dine out and just as steadily long for the flip side of this scenario: a maitre d' who appears instantly and produces a table already set with flatware. I never expected to find this person at Il Bellagio, which is tourist-trap central. I've gotten ho-hum word-of-mouth reports about the restaurant since Tom Billante and his partner, Ronnie Del Signore, opened it in early 2000. This, despite a location that any restaurateur would pledge himself to Satan to occupy. Still, Billante has operated enough Italian chow houses to know what he's doing; his eateries, owned or previously owned with partners and family, include among others the widespread Mezzanotte chain, Bella Luna, Luna Café, Trattoria Rosalia, and Carpaccio. Mostly, they are spread around Miami, with big, moderately priced menus featuring homemade pasta, wood-oven pizzas, and grilled chops.
Bellagio, like so many other Billante enterprises, is a superbreed; it has not only flourished while its CityPlace competition floundered but has even expanded — a bakery café was added as a side business a few years after the main restaurant opened. And the restaurant is either much improved or it got some bum buzz, because we had a terrific meal there.
Bellagio, which seats 290 (with 150 on the patio), does not take reservations — another reason you need a ringmaster who's going to summon you toot-sweet as you wait wedged into a throng of tweens, twinks, geezers, and breast-feeding mums, all of whom are screaming, cooing, canoodling, or yakking into cell phones. In fine weather, Bellagio is a pleasant place to eat outdoors — you're part of the crowd yet conveniently separate from it. The fountain wafts cool air, the whole complex is brightly lit and festive, and the people-watching is a gas.
Billante has hit on a bankruptcy-proof formula: Home-cook your fare, serve it at decent prices, and the masses will come. I don't know when I last saw a double pork chop, grilled so it's just barely pink in the center and full of juice, served with its dramatic, curving bone intact, for a ridiculously low $21.95. I've paid $40 for smaller, drier chops at many a hoity boîte in my time. Bellagio's came smothered in hot peppers and sautéed onions.
You'd have to eat your weight in homemade pasta to spend any real money here. Fifteen bucks buys you a big platter that reminds you why carbs rule. I defy anybody to resist Bellagio's fettuccine Alfredo ($14.95), spun silk swaddled in cream, piquant with parm and pepper (add chicken if you must for an extra $5). Fusilli telefono was equally bodacious — chewy twirls of pasta in a classic sauce: marinara, bits of mozzarella, lots of Parmesan, snips of fresh basil ($13.95). Billante reportedly discovered Bellagio's penette at Harry's Bar in Venice; here, it's a combination of garlic, olive oil, spinach, sun-dried tomato, and pine nuts that's worth mopping up with your last crust of bread. There's also homemade agnolotti, veal-stuffed tortellini, and spaghetti Bolognese.
Hot soup is becoming rare in the midpriced restaurant world, but at Bellagio, our lentil soup ($5.95), flecked with diced tomato, minuscule tubes of buccatini, and threads of spinach, was still wafting steam when it reached our table. Pasta e fagioli ($5.95), a classic Italian white bean stew, was the hearty, aromatic brew we've come to love. Both soups were generous enough to make a light meal.
So many restaurant salads don't even bother to try — they're often boring, badly dressed, or just a bagged mix that's tossed onto a plate. But judging from one of their eight salads, the insalata pera ($8.95), Bellagio knows what to do with a mess of greens. These baby lettuces may well have been bagged, but tarted up with gorgonzola honey dressing, juicy wedges of fresh pear, and candied walnuts, they turned every head at our table. Caesar, chicken, shellfish, and tuna-topped salads range from $5.95 to $12.95.
Servers never stopped moving among tables. Our waitress had a sense of humor and purpose. She and the busser didn't forget to top off our water glasses, bring more wine, or pick up empty plates.
Two dishes we tried weren't as awe-inspiring as the rest. Mozzarella caprese ($8.95), a round of house-made mozz, had been set on a monstrous slab of flavorless tomato. You've got two ingredients to work with in this salad, and one of them, the bionic vegetable, had zero finesse. And I wasn't thrilled with my salmon carpaccio ($9.95), a moat of paper-thin salmon surrounding a fortress of salad greens. It took some work to scrape up those transparent slices. By the time I got them into my mouth, they'd disintegrated into a mess that wasn't worth the trouble or price.
You know chocolate is full of antioxidants, right? And it's good for your skin if you eat it every single day, maybe even twice a day, without fail? In that spirit, I recommend Bellagio's Vesuvio cake ($6.95) as a healthy alternative to those Hershey's dark kisses you've been scarfing. It's divided into four parts, so you can make a day of it: chocolate brownie, chocolate cheesecake, chocolate truffle, and chocolate mousse. Nobody but my father-in-law could eat this cake alone in one sitting. We also loved our pistachio tartufo ($6.50), which was refreshing and relatively light, consisting of rounds of pistachio ice cream in a dark-chocolate shell with one of those delicious candied cherries in the middle. Il Bellagio makes its own tiramisu; some other desserts are imported, such as the sorbets served in a whole citrus fruit or coconut and the lemon and pear tortes. The espresso, served with a lemon peel, and the foamy, cinnamon-dusted cappuccino are the real deal.
And then, after the last drop of coffee, I didn't feel like my normal old self at all: Shopping is fun... So is eating Vesuvio cake next to a fancy fountain... I (heart) CityPlace!