The river that separates St. Louis from St. Charles County may as well be as wide as the Pacific Ocean. At least that is the impression I got from most of my friends when I asked them to accompany me to Bella Vino, the new wine bar and tapas restaurant on St. Charles' historic Main Street. Judging from their reaction, Earth City might as well be the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
This should not be, as it's impossible to not be taken with Bella Vino. Owners Ashley Morrison and Jackie Miller, long-time restaurant-industry veterans (their résumés include Aqua Vin, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and Busch's Grove) wanted to create a warm and comfortable space, and they nailed it. Bella Vino is located in a converted two-story house. An outdoor fireplace and rustic wrought-iron furniture greet diners as they walk up the brick stairs to the front door, and inside the place is tiny — tight, in fact — with tables placed close together around the fireplace in what was once someone's living room. The place made me feel like I was on a weekend getaway at a bed and breakfast.
Chef Brian Menzel, formerly of the shuttered Aqua Vin, collaborated with the two owners on a tapas-style menu with Spanish and Italian influences. We began with the classic bacon-wrapped, chorizo-stuffed dates, a delicious mix of sweet, spice and savory. They were delicious, but with only three per order, sharing necessitates a second portion.
The beef and pork meatballs were ignited by cayenne and cumin, which paired perfectly with the accompanying caramelized onion jam. The shrimp over quinoa was a nice palate cleanser, thanks to a zesty salad of avocado, red onion, orange segments, corn, black beans and pomegranate, all dressed with a tart lemon vinaigrette. Perhaps more appropriate for summertime al fresco dining, it was still the best of the many dishes we tasted at Bella Vino.
The crab-stuffed portabella mushrooms were light on filler with whole chunks of lump meat. Unfortunately, the generosity with the product revealed its source — the canned crab many restaurants use here in the Midwest. The inevitable metallic tinge made the dish taste off. The seared tuna stemperata, on the other hand, was the picture of well-executed seafood. The rare ahi tuna was sliced into one-inch-thick pieces and placed on a bed of field greens with olives, pickled red onion and finished with lemon-oregano vinaigrette. For a pop of flavor, Bella Vino sprinkles fresh mint, capers and golden raisins over the salad; they made the dish a standout.
The restaurant offers a handful of pasta selections and flatbreads in addition to the tapas. The mac & cheese was a creamy mix of cheddar and Camembert, with a welcome kick from pimentos and green chiles, topped with a cheese-cracker crust. The duck-prosciutto flatbread was incredible — thin slices of cured duck, caramelized onions and Gorgonzola cheese topped the rich mascarpone base.
We finished the meal with Bella Vino's excellent take on gooey-butter cake. The cake has a caramelized, brown-butter-like bottom that adds a savory component to this often too-sweet dessert. The chef exercises restraint with the cream-cheese topping — it's about a quarter-inch layer over the top rather than the more popular 50/50 ratio — which makes it possible to devour the entire piece.
The drive to Bella Vino clocks in at a mere twenty minutes from mid-county — roughly the same amount of time it takes to get to Benton Park. For those willing to make this manageable jaunt across the Blanchette Bridge, this quaint escape is worth the extra gas money.