Thursday, October 12, 2006

THE ITALIAN JOB

Fancy sandwiches fit midday demands in the southwest

Posted on Thu, Oct 12, 2006 at 4:00 AM

'Business casualâ?�: It's a conundrum that most of us have had to wrap our brains around in the last five years or so. Where once there was a uniform for work (suit, tie; pantyhose, pumps) and one for hanging out (either looser or tighter than the daily monkey suit, depending on your proclivities), now we have to parse a version of our home selves that will fly at work. Food has gone through a similar makeover ' once it was split between expensive white-tablecloth restaurants and greasy spoons, but now the lines have blurred. We want to dress up our Gap-khaki turkey sandwiches with dry-clean-only caper pesto.

Bella Café doesn't redefine the spiffed-up sandwich; it just prepares them very well. No surprises here; the upmarket salads and sandwiches aren't especially creative, but they are put together with care and quality. The board of menu choices can be overwhelming ' everything's been assigned an Italian title, and the descriptions are hard to read ' but there really are no wrong choices.

Two in our trio went for panini: the 'Montianoâ?� (roast beef, provolone and caramelized onion daubed with super-sweet honey mustard; $7.50) and the 'Tuscanâ?� (juicy grilled chicken breast ' the real thing, not the icky cold-cut variety ' fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers; $7.50). Both were satisfying, but the real mouth-watering winner was our third companion's choice, the 'Marlianaâ?� ($7.95). A soft baguette ' well, the menu calls it a baguette, but a Frenchman would sneer; I'd label it a crusty roll ' barely managed to contain moist, tender pot roast touched with horseradish and blanketed in cheddar. It was like a portable Sunday dinner. All that was missing was the roasted carrots and potatoes.

Luckily for me, this companion has a dainty appetite, and I was easily able to talk him out of half of his sandwich. He fell back on his bowl of creamy lobster bisque ($2.99). It was thick as pudding and the color of Thousand Island dressing, lacking the delicate nature one might expect from a usually refined soup, but there were tangible shreds of crustacean.

On our way out the door, we had to have a bit of gelato ('to settle the stomach,� as my ice-creamaholic father would say). Bella Café serves several flavors of gelato from downtown's Il Gelatone. After sampling tiny spoons of peanut butter and chocolate, we settled for a scoop ($3.25) of dulcet ripe banana and one of raspberry ' studded with tiny crunchy seeds and intensely sweet-tart. After a business-like lunch, we were ready to get back to the casual Orlando Weekly office.

Despite Bella's distant (to me) location in a busy MetroWest strip mall, I might return soon â?¦ half of that pot-roast sandwich just wasn't enough.

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