I am just going to go out there and say it: the food at Bambinelli’s Italian Cafe, the new neighborhood Italian spot that opened in English Village last week, is surprisingly good. I honestly expected little of an Italian place moving into Ciao’s old digs, where my experiences were mediocre at best. But I am not going to dwell on Ciao, as it is always sad to see a local restaurant shuttered.
According to my waiter, the cafe had a soft opening a few days before Thanksgiving (a bit sooner than AL.com suggested a few weeks ago). I went for some exploratory dinners this past Monday and Tuesday. Both times, we sat by the roaring fireplace in the dining room next to Joe Muggs. I’m a fan of the fireplace. Some curtains or throw rugs would help in there because even with only 10 or 12 people, it got loud very quickly (lots of echo). The interior still a bit austere.
The menu is lengthy and covers all the usual suspects–pizzas, pastas, parmigianas–along with some distressing Americanized bits. I haven’t been for lunch yet but am looking forward to one of my guilty pleasures–one of the dishes that reminds me of growing up on Long Island–the chicken parmigiana sub (though we called them heroes). Now back to the food I have eaten.
Fried calamari usually helps me form a good first impression, since they’re easy to botch. Good calamari, for me, usually heralds a good dinner. Bettola is still my favorite Birmingham squid spot. Apparently these are prepared in-house, and mine came perfectly cooked–tender with well-spiced breading. The marinara sauce is a bit sweet for my taste.
Then came an actually fresh complimentary salad. There’s no pallid bowl of limp lettuce, still-frozen julienned carrots, a couple of sad onions, and an even more depressed tomato here. It might be a spring lettuce from-the-box mix, but whatever. It’s fresh.
Pasta with Spinach and Cannellini beans and the 4-Cheese Gnocchi were next. Both were perfectly good dishes, though I had a few reservations. The pasta is something I make for myself quite frequently but hardly ever see on a menu. It’s rustic comfort food. Theirs is a bit garlic-heavy and possibly too pricey (at around $12) for a plate of pasta and beans. And for the 4-Cheese Gnocchi, not many places offer the little dumplings, and with good reason. They are difficult to prepare, and frozen ones typically suck (read: bland, tough). I haven’t met the Bambinelli’s chef yet, but whoever they are, they made respectable gnocchi. (Deb from Smitten Kitchen has an excellent commentary on the travails of her gnocchi experience). The cheeziness dialed back, but that’s just me. There is one other gnocchi option that I am eagerly anticipating.
We left in good spirits, satisfied and sated. Upon returning the next night, I was set on pizza. Having most recently lived in New York, I am particular about my pizza and have found most local options lacking (except, again, for Bettola, whose pizza I love). At the last minute I inexplicably added pepperoni. It seemed like a good to do at the time. After the salads and a round of fried calamari (just as good as the pervious night), my pizza arrived.
Of the three major pizza components–crust, sauce, and cheese–the crust is my make-or-break feature. It can’t be too thick or too thin. Too doughy or too brittle. I prefer aged dough. Thin, chewy, and pliable are the characteristics I look for, and I was pleased by my Bambinelli’s crust. It’s just under what I’d consider too thick and had a did well with the chew-factor. I would order it again (only without the pepperoni. I am just not really into meat pizzas).
My frequent dining partner K Black ordered Chicken Marsala. Based on experience, I shy away from that dish when eating out. The chicken always seems to be dry, and the sauce goopy. This was neither. The chicken was juicy and the dish wasn’t oversauced. Even with my pizza, I was a bit jealous.
The waiter for the second expedition explained that the cafe was still in the “soft opening” phase, which makes sense. The service was a bit rough and the kitchen timing could have been better (the second night the calamari and entrees came out within minutes of each other). If I were in the kitchen, which I am not (and shouldn’t be), I’d dial back some of the flavors (in these cases, the garlic and the cheese). Nevertheless, it’s a great start for a good neighborhood restaurant. (If they start a half-price wine night, you’ll know where to find me. Oh, right. Speaking of which, their wine list is quite good too).
Bambinelli’s Italian Cafe
2031 Cahaba Road
Mountain Brook, AL
Dan is the producer of ‘Ham Sandwich. He sometimes longs for breezy walks down Broadway with a slice of pizza larger than his face. First Bite is for first reactions to new restaurants (or at least restaurants that are new to us). We aren’t crazy about the idea of being restaurant critics, but it’s likely we’ll be critical from time to time. First Bites will have followups.