Orange County is packed with Italian restaurants, and I’m not talking about the seemingly endless supply of pizza joints or faux Italian such as Olive Garden, whose products are usually as far from authentic as you can get.
Newport Beach has a handful of quality Italian bistros, including three of my favorites: Il Barone, Sapori and Andrea at Pelican Hill (more than a bistro but still a sensational culinary journey to Italy).
Now, I can add one more to the list: Bello by Sandro Nardone, which opened two weeks ago at the Newport North shopping center where Pita Jungle closed earlier this year.
I had heard Bello was coming to Newport, and was curious because I was not familiar with Nardone. After doing some research, I learned that he was born in Italy and comes from a family of chefs. His parents ran a small chain of restaurants, with his mother, Giovanna, as chef.
Nardone worked at several restaurants, but his best education came from dining out at the most innovative restaurants in Italy to learn more about modern Italian food.
In 2012, he came to the United States and founded Angelina’s Pizzeria in Dana Point, which quickly built a loyal following. However, Nardone wanted to do more so after developing his recipes, he found a space in Newport Beach suitable to expand on his passion to offer classic dishes as they would be served in Italy.
“You are familiar with Italian food, which is served in Orange County,” said Nardone, as we began our culinary journey to Italy. “That is American Italian. In Italy, we would not eat that kind of food. It is more comfort food you would eat in the home, not in a restaurant. You do not go to a restaurant to eat pasta and meatballs. So, I thought it was the right time to open a restaurant serving the real food we serve in Italy. A lot of the recipes are my interpretation, but it is something we would eat in Italy in restaurants.”
At a media event prior to Bello’s opening, I got to sample a variety of dishes and talk to Nardone and his Chef de Cuisine Frank DeLoach, who has worked in the kitchens of The Playground, Early Bird and Tavern on Two. He was a winner of the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen, and was featured on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Guy Fieri.
We started with steamed lobster served with fresh chili, seasonal fruit (in this case, strawberries), and passion fruit vinaigrette. As with the dishes that followed, the presentation was lovely and the flavors blended perfectly.
Next was Hamachi crudo with green apples and ginger, followed by cannolo with mortadella mousse and pineapple mostarda.
The taglierini al gamberi was eye opening. The thin ribbon pasta came with shrimp and lime, with a texture and taste unlike most pastas I’ve had.
“I don’t use butter,” Nardone confided. “The pasta is cooked not in water but in shrimp stock. When the stock is reduced the pasta is cooked, and it releases the creaminess and starchiness.”
Next was rigatoncini pasta with pork sausage, porcini mushrooms and black truffles. The combination was superb, with the black truffles adding a nice decadent touch.
The oven roasted hen served with peperonata (an Italian-style condiment) and herbs was tender, and the peperonata was a nice accompaniment.
Then it was on to dessert. The first dessert course was whipped avocado with strawberries and garbanzos.
“I know it doesn’t look like dessert, but I promise you it’s dessert,” DeLoach said. “I found that everyone makes dessert, but no one makes good vegan dessert. During our recipe R&D, we made most of our desserts vegan. We found fun ways to use different products, but it has to taste good. This is one of my favorite ways to finish a meal. In Italy it is very common to finish a meal with something light, so what we have is avocado mousse, slightly sweetened, with strawberry vinegar. The chickpeas are fried and rested, and then tossed in sugar. They are crispy and chewy and sweet. The dessert should not make sense, but it’s super good.”
DeLoach was correct — the ingredients sound odd together, but they worked brilliantly in this context.
To finish the meal, we had Nutella with bread foams, another unusual dish that was so light and fluffy it was almost like eating Nutella air.
“If vegans and vegetarians come to my restaurant, I want them to eat as well as guests who are eating meat and fish. Anything else is unacceptable” Nardone said.
The interior of the restaurant is classy yet comfortable, with seating for 140 and an open kitchen. The large wrap-around bar and lounge is striking, as are the classic Italian murals on the walls.
Bello is open nightly for dinner, with lunch and brunch services coming later.
For more information, visit bellobysandronardone.com.