Dining review: Bellini provides traditional Italian experience in Cary
BY GREG COX
Go to Bellini’s website, and as soon as the page loads, Frank Sinatra starts singing “My Way” in the background. Before you go looking for the mute button ( it’s at the bottom of the page), you might want to know that Old Blue Eyes isn’t just setting the mood. He’s sending a signal to anyone craving the traditional Italian fine dining experience – linen-draped tables, well-trained waiters wearing ties, veal on the menu, and of course, Sinatra crooning in the background – that they’ll find it at Bellini.
It isn’t that easy to find these days, and clearly, a lot of people have been looking. Just a few years after opening, Bellini had outgrown its strip mall space in Fuquay-Varina. Brothers Abel and Adan Atauchi, the restaurant’s owners and co-chefs, scouted around for a new location, and in January of this year relocated to much roomier digs (180 seats, including a courtyard patio) in Cary’s MacGregor Village. The new setting is more upscale, too, with Mediterranean landscapes and a well-stocked mahogany bar setting a casually romantic mood.
When it came to the food, though, the brothers knew not to mess with success. Fans who follow Bellini to its new location will find all their old favorites on an extensive menu that reads like an encyclopedia of old school classics, from Caesar salad to boozy tiramisu. In between, the list includes a dozen and a half pastas (several of them house-made), a handful of steak and seafood dishes, and just about every variation on the classic veal and chicken scaloppine themes you can think of.
Then there are the nightly specials, where the Atauchi brothers pull out all the stops. On a recent Friday night, anyone willing to plop down 36 bucks (nearly twice the average entree price on the menu) for stuffed branzino got their money’s worth in the form of two filets, each crammed with lobster, scallops and a whole jumbo shrimp, blanketed with an herb-spangled cherry tomato sauce, encircled by black mussels, and crowned with two improbably fat, tender asparagus spears.
That same night, the appetizer was simplicity itself, but no less impressive: stone crab, cleanly picked and sublimely sweet, served with a sauceboat of honey-dijon mayonnaise and an artfully cut lemon half on the side.
If you can resist the siren call of the specials, the textbook rendition of eggplant rollatini on the regular menu won’t let you down. Oysters Rockefeller, plump and juicy under a lightly browned tapestry of spinach, bread crumbs and bacon in Pernod-laced cream, are another fine starter. But for my money, it’s the zucchini fritti – shoestring cut, fried to a delicately crisp turn in a translucent golden brown batter, and served with a small dish of Bellini’s addictive warm marinara for dipping – that are the surprise star of the appetizer list.
Homemade pastas cover the spectrum from lasagna to fettuccine Alfredo. Scratch-made cavatelli, stubby ricotta-enriched shells with a texture reminiscent of gnocchi, are so toothsome that you’re almost willing to overlook the fact that the pasta is swimming in too much cream sauce with too little of the promised prosciutto. The bolognese that plays meaty counterpoint to potato gnocchi, on the other hand, won’t disappoint.
If you miss out on the stuffed branzino special, Bellini’s lavish take on zuppa di pesce – clams, mussels, calamari, scallops and lobster tail over al dente spaghetti in your choice of marinara or white wine sauce – is ample consolation.
Veal saltimbocca is a solid landlubber option, though the presentation is saucier than any I’ve come across before. But veal marsala (and presumably its chicken counterpart) is on point with exceptionally tender scaloppine and a classic mushroom-studded brown gravy.
Bellini’s excellent New York-style pizzas aren’t listed on the dinner menu, but they’re available on request outside the prime weekend hours. For that matter, the kitchen regularly caters to special requests for dishes not on the menu, depending on availability of ingredients. Osso buco is a frequent request, according to Abel Atauchi, whose accommodating attitude is a reflection of his old-school training.
The Atauchi brothers have been cooking these dishes for a long time (Abel alone has more than three decades of experience under his belt, including 22 years in New York), a fact that goes a long way toward explaining their impressive level of consistency in executing a menu with such a broad scope. It should come as no surprise that they were able to hit the ground running at Bellini’s new location.
Not that the move was entirely painless. Higher rent in Cary pushed menu prices up, and early customers were in for sticker shock when they saw spaghetti with meat sauce at $18.95. That’s just a dollar less than the price of the veal dishes, and it no longer includes the side salad that came with entrees at the old location. In response to complaints, the owners recently began reducing some prices, particularly of pasta dishes. Judging by the well-filled dining room when I’ve visited, I’d say there are plenty of people who agree with me that the prices are fair for a taste of nostalgia at Bellini.
107-119 Edinburgh South Drive, Cary; 919-552-0303
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: casually romantic
Noise level: low to moderate
Recommended: zucchini fritti, eggplant rollatini, veal marsala, specials
Open: Lunch and dinner daily. (Note: closed July 4)
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.
Read more from the source at The News & Observer: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/restaurants/article86661532.html#storylink=cpy