Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 28, 2023

Bella Vita offers Italian excellence amid a sea of lesser chain choices

The caprese starter at Bella Vita in Ft. Oglethorpe

Like an invitation from a friend, the words “Bella Vita” beckon to Battlefield Parkway motorists from the facade of an end-cap at a strip mall, encouraging them to pause their travels and step through the door beneath the words to enjoy a fine Italian meal and perhaps wine from a 600-year-old Sicilian vineyard.

“Bella vita” is an Italian saying that translates to “good life” in English. It’s a fitting name for the new venture from the people who brought Il Primo to Chattanooga and Ooltewah and Giardino to Missionary Ridge. Featuring dishes crafted by local celebrity chef Oscar Ixcot, the cuisine can absolutely improve the quality of one’s life.

Look at what I’ve done; I’ve given away the ending. But as I write, the taste of limoncello pie and a tart Rossese bianco are lingering on my tongue like a violin note that’s hanging sweetly in the air after an aria has concluded, and all I can think to say is, “Muah!”

My Bella Vita dining experience began on a Saturday evening with a smile that could warm vineyards. After the host greeted us, she whisked my dinner companion and me to a table in another room and handed us menus that occupied us for several minutes.

To my relief, all of Bella Vita’s dishes are detailed on a single page, the back of which lists the wines and cocktails. Longwinded menus make me anxious, and I sometimes order the “What She’s Having” to keep things simple.

After scanning the “Antipasti” (starters) and ordering a caprese, I read through the “Pasta,” “Insalata” (salad) and “Secondi” (protein) portions of the menu. I immediately noted the names of the farms that supplied the ingredients for the dishes. For example, Springer Mountain Farms raised the poultry for the chicken Alfredo, while Joyce Farms supplied the ground beef for the pappardelle bolongnese.

Seeing local flavor expand on Battlefield Parkway, which is essentially a corridor of chain restaurants, is exciting. Finally, diners in Catoosa County have a locally sourced option other than Farm to Fork.

Even though the entrées filled only a single page, settling on one proved to be a challenge. I initially considered Noona’s Spaghetti & Meatballs – who doesn’t love a classic? – but eventually found myself debating between the Pomodoro Al Vegetariana, which consists of spaghetti, mixed vegetables and marinara, and the Faroe Island salmon with rosemary sauce.

The salmon won the tug-of-war.

As we waited for our meals to arrive, our server placed a plate of crusty bread chunks and a bowl of olive oil, spices and grated Parmesan cheese on our table. That was all the invitation we needed to begin. Those of you who have tasted the famous bread and oil at Tony’s Pasta Shop in the Bluff View Art District might be skeptical when I say the same at Bella Vita is nearly as good.

When the salmon arrived, it came with a glass of Doppio Passo Grillo, a white wine from Sicily. Bella Vita manager John Michael Thurman, who selected it, assured me it would pair well with the rosemary sauce, not because it would match the creaminess but because its tart citrus notes would provide a contrast to the entrée. (I cannot stress enough that these words belong to Thurman; I do not have this level of knowledge about wine.)

The salmon was prepared precisely how I’d described my preferences to the server – well done and crispy around the edges – and tasted like it came not from a freezer or a farm but had leapt from the salty waters of the North Atlantic into Ixcot’s kitchen. Surely it hadn’t, but I swore I could taste the freshness and the skill with which the chef that evening had prepared it.

When dessert – a decadent crème brulée – arrived, Thurman returned to serve one last morsel of information about the wine he’d selected. He noted that the Grillo had warmed in my glass as I ate and that it would now match the creaminess of the brulée. Discovering he was correct, or that I at least perceived he was, was a revelation.

Other, minor revelations about Bella Vita occurred throughout the evening. For instance, I observed how someone was always ready to attend to us; when our primary server was occupied elsewhere but the caprese or crème brulée was ready, another member of the staff conveyed it. My dinner companion and I both noted the clockwork rhythm of our meal and never felt as though we’d waited a beat for anything – even though the place was moderately busy.

Open for only a few months, Bella Vita is a welcome addition to the Chattanooga area and well worth the drive from anywhere within that boundary. The restaurant is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, meaning lunch is also an option, as is catering.

Whenever you experience Bella Vita, and whatever you order, I believe you’ll agree that it delivers on its invitation to enjoy a slice of the good life. The food, service and atmosphere are not merely done well, they’re done with excellence.