And I wasn’t the only one. With a clear view of the door, I watched others have the same stop-in-their-tracks reaction.
Appealing to the senses is a very Italian way to awaken appetites. It’s fitting for a place aiming to be an Ohio version of a Tuscan trattoria. Owner Ken Stewart based Tre Belle on restaurants he visited in Italy. The decor, designed by Stewart’s wife, Lori, is meant to reinforce Old World impressions. Stucco walls and a zinc bar give the illusion of age in the glow of candles in Chianti bottles.
The restaurateur, who also operates the 20-year-old Ken Stewart’s Grille and Ken Stewart’s Lodge, which shares the building with Tre Belle, has a long history of giving Akronites what they want. So Stewart admits he’s modified his original vision since opening in December 2008 to suit customer demands. The result is a hybrid, blending authentic elements and local preferences. That’s why spaghetti with meatballs, steak and California chardonnays are on the menu with panzannella, gnocchi and Brunello di Montalcino from Toscana.
For my money, the antipasto bar — both the selection of foods and the location — is the best and most interesting part of the restaurant, dominating the room with a long L-shaped marble counter. Platters and bowls filled with colorful mounds of traditionally prepared vegetables and salads are arrayed behind a low glass partition. Perched on stools, we had an entertaining view of the food, the flames leaping in the giant maw of pizza ovens and two white-coated cooks rolling out circles of dough and feeding the fire.
A hand-cranked meat slicer with a sculptural look (and a cost, I was told, equivalent to a small car), was in almost constant use, producing paper-thin pieces of cured pork and beef. We tried a threesome: fennel salami, Abruzzo soppressata and smoked prosciutto, presented on a wooden board ($15). To go with the meat, we ordered a trio of vegetables ($6 each): eggplant caponata that missed the essential sweet and sour balance by just a few extra spoonfuls of sugar; red and yellow peppers roasted to limp tenderness; and silky sauteed Swiss chard.
To this ample spread we added Tete de Moine ($4). Literally translated as Monk’s Head, these are “flowers” of strong-smelling, delicate cheese. To release its distinctive aroma and wonderful sharp nutty flavor, the waiter scrapes a thin layer off the top of the wheel with a girolle as you watch and then rolls the shaving into a rosette. A drizzle of truffle honey turns each bite into something truly sublime. This makes a great dessert, too.
All portions were generous, a Stewart restaurant trademark. Augmented with a complimentary basket of focaccia and plate of olive oil dusted with herbs and cheese for dipping, the meal would have been satisfying, and economical, had I stopped here. But since it’s my job to taste and tell you about it, my meal heartily went on.
We also ordered a pizza, with prosciutto di Parma, diced tomatoes, a few ladles of made-from-scratch sauce, arugula and mozzarella ($15.99). It was terrific — the crust thin, crisp and nicely browned, the toppings abundant but not excessive. There are nine other pizzas including a Piedmote version featuring pancetta, fontina and egg. Two glasses of good red, Leone Rosso syrah-sangiovese blend ($9.95) and Dolcetto d’ Alba ($9.50), put our spread into the extravagantly good category.
A second visit did not leave us so happy. We had a booth in the lounge, one of four other dining areas. The server hurried us along, the basket of bread containing two stale pieces came with an explanation that they’d run out (on a Friday night) and the promise that more would be brought (it never arrived). An hour later we were told they were out of gelato, too.
Of the dishes we tried that night, the bruschetta and white bean spread appetizer prepared Tuscana style with extra virgin olive oil and saba (a sweet concentrated syrup made from grape juice) was good, but at $8.95, it was a bit overpriced for three triangles of toast. The fried calamari ($9.95) went from ordinary to noteworthy when we gave each bite a swirl in the hot pepper vinegar. The house’s signature lemon chicken cooked on a rotisserie ($18.95) was moist and imbued with citrus essence. But the pesto on the accompanying “twirl” of linguine left an oily pool on the plate and needed more Parmesan and salt.
Pappardelle pasta in a lamb ragu was disappointing ($16.95). The sauce wasn’t as rich as it should be, and it couldn’t stand up to the wide flat noodles. Stewart agreed with me when we spoke a few weeks after my visit. He said the recipe has been reworked to make it denser and is now finished with a swirl of cream.
Most of the entrees I did not sample qualify as comfort food and don’t appear to blaze new ground: lasagna; chicken, veal or eggplant Parmesan; baked ziti. But the kitchen does reach beyond the standards with a whole bronzino (a European seabass), available only on Saturdays and Sundays, and in specials such as osso bucco.
For a sweet finish, you can’t go wrong with tiramisu. It is made in-house, and the huge piece is plenty for two ($8.95). But for something different, choose the almond- and mascarpone-stuffed dates doused in a spiced wine reduction ($6.95). Savoring a bite, eyes closed, it’s easy to imagine yourself transported to a piazza far away.
1911 N. Cleveland-Massillon Road, Bath, 330-666-9990. Tue-Thu 5 - 10 p.m.; Fri & Sat 5 p.m. - close, kenstewartsonline.com
12:00 AM EST
December 16, 2009