You gotta love a place where you can get a good, honest plate of spaghetti and meatballs for $6.75. And that's with toasted garlic bread.
Actually, you get only one meatball with that - but you do get bread with one meatball. And if you want a second meatball it's only an extra $1.10. (I recommend it, because the meatballs are good.)
The point is that, at Café la Bellitalia, you'll get good, fresh, simply prepared Italian food, and plenty of it, all at most reasonable prices. Ever since Pietro and Josephine Pipitone moved into the space vacated by Ole 'n Rick's North Side Inn, they have been building a loyal neighborhood clientele with homemade dishes - pizza, ravioli, eggplant Parmigiana, lasagna and other Southern Italian dishes. They make their own marinara, which is sweet in the Sicilian style, and, of course, their own meatballs.
Business was slow at first, but the Pietros must have taken a cue from New York's famous Mama Leone, who said, "Make good food, serve plenty of it, and the people will come." Now there is often a wait for a table on weekends.
The menu is stocked with all the standard Italian American dishes: tortellini, manicotti, chicken vesuvio. There are beef, sausage and meatball sandwiches, and also a chicken Parmigiana sandwich with sausage and mozzarella. There are several salads and a long list of appetizers, some looking like typical bar fare (jalapeño poppers, chicken tenders), others more interesting (battered eggplant or zucchini strips).
There is a bambini menu (how about chicken fingers and french fries?) and a family menu that makes a McDonald's dinner look pricey. For example, at Bellitalia, you can get a spaghetti and meatball dinner for four, with toasted garlic bread, for $18.99. Same price for ravioli.
Pizza is a strong suit here because, before coming to Madison, the Pipitones ran a pizza parlor in Beaver Dam for five years. There are thin-crust, pan, stuffed and specialty pizzas. All the standard toppings are offered, as well as pineapple, spinach, artichoke hearts and asiago cheese.
Several recent visits met with success, for the most part. My linguini with clams was beautiful, a plentiful number of tender cherrystone clams with a white sauce of garlic, olive oil and dry white wine. I took home the leftover linguini, reheated it the next night with some frozen shrimp I had on hand, and enjoyed it all over again.
A companion's penne vodka was nicely done, gently cooked with garlic, tomatoes, cream, Parmesan cheese and a little red pepper. When I talked with this companion the next day, she was at home, eating the second half of her penne. (Did I mention that the portions are really big at Bellitalia?)
The eggplant Parmigiana was nice and crunchy on top, not soggy like some, the eggplant firm in texture, all with a pleasant, smoky essence, baked with a side of spaghetti. Comfort food, indeed.
The only clunker was the veal Parmigiana. Usually made with one or two veal cutlets, this dish was more like a stew, with the veal cut virtually into bite-size pieces. The flavor was good, but the veal itself was gristly and fatty. Maybe an off-night in the kitchen?
Another disappointment was the side salad ($2.75), which ordinarily would be nice with a pasta and marinara dish, but this salad was nothing more than chopped iceberg with two slices of both tomato and cucumber. I'm usually the first to defend iceberg, but here it was sacrificed to no good cause.
The Italian sausage is one of the few things not made in house (it comes from Chicago), but one day at lunch I did enjoy a sausage sandwich with red sauce and mozzarella - or, as the menu says, "moozzarella." At first I thought this was Italy's tip of the hat to the Dairy State, but it turns out it was just a typo. (A fun game is finding the other typos on the printed menu.)
Any possible disappointments you may find during your dinner at Café la Bellitalia will soon be forgotten when you try their superb cannoli. How many tired and soggy cannoli have I had in my life? This one was bellisimo, a crunchy little pastry tube, filled with cold and fresh sweetened ricotta, drizzled with chocolate syrup. Truly the best cannolo (yes, that's the singular) I have ever had.
Café la Bellitalia is a pleasant addition to Madison's north side, a welcoming and cheerful little trattoria where you can have a satisfying lunch or dinner and still have enough money left over to buy a gallon of gas to get back home.