Bella Blu Ristorante was a most pleasant surprise discovery several years ago during a day trip to the Upper East Side. While looking for a lunch spot, we were captivated by the vibrant fresco art on the walls and decided to give this colorful, delightful-appearing Italian restaurant a try. We were so glad to have done so, as it has since become a required destination any time we are visiting the area for their exceptional, authentic pizzas, cocktails and atmosphere. The menu is a mixture of Italian specialties and unique creations, all featuring extremely fresh ingredients and emphasizing simplicity and true Italian taste. Stepping into Bella Blu, I feel immediately transported to a bustling trattoria in Italy. The activity of waiters buzzing through the tightly-packed tables, the sound of Italian conversation and shouts for “pinot grigio” and “prosecco” during heavy lunch traffic…all of it immediately reads authentic. On a most recent visit this past week, the restaurant was so busy even at nearly 2:00pm we had to snag the last two available seats at the bar.
The bartender was welcoming and, more importantly, knew how to mix an exceptional Venetian Spritz. While cooling off with this refreshing mix of Aperol and prosecco, we pondered the lengthy menu of antipasti, insalate, pesce, carne and pasta even though we knew what we were going to order: pizza. Still, it was tempting to try one of their other offerings such as sauteed baby artichokes with pistachio and parmesan cheese on mache, filled veal and raisin casconcelli in a sage and sweet butter with crispy pancetta, saffron fettuccine with broccoli rabe pesto and sea scallops, or the homemade half moon ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta in a cream black truffle sauce. From past experience I recall their carpaccio is wonderful, but we were trying to eat light as we had a long afternoon of walking the city yet ahead of us.
We chose to stick with two of Bella Blu’s pizzas from the wood-fired, mosaic-tiled oven. All of Bella Blu’s pizzas are “DOC”, they proudly proclaim on their menu, prepared with only Italian flour, authentic San Marzano tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese. I had previously swooned over a seafood pizza which was exactly as I had savored in Venice – complete with mussels and clams still in shell during baking so the shellfish juices flavored the entire pie. Sadly the seafood pizza was not on the menu this time, so I went for the Capriciosa, my favorite style of pizza from Rome. It promised a topping combination of tomato, mozzarella, wild mushrooms, olives, fresh artichokes and prosciutto cotto. While the mushrooms on my Capriciosa appeared and tasted like standard portabella, I cannot complain about the pizza’s flavor in the slightest. Every component tasted exceptionally fresh and was perfectly balanced: not too much sauce, not too much cheese, as much toppings as the pie could reasonably contain. Unlike American-style pizza, which I generally cannot stand, this was a real Italian pizza: light, crispy, free of grease and heavy processed cheese. I typically prefer to make pizza at home instead of order it out. Yet I’ll always make an exception for one of Bella Blu’s pies, as without a wood-fired oven of my own to get such high baking temperatures, I just can’t match the perfect texture of their pie crust: crispy yet not cracker-hard; soft yet not chewy and gummy.
My companion ordered the San Danielle, highly recommended by the bartender and deservedly so. Topped with tomato, mozzarella, arugula and prosciutto, it too was absolutely authentic in style and reminiscent of the pizzas I’ve enjoyed many times in Italy itself. All of Bella Blu’s pizzas are individually sized, though large enough that if you order some antipasti or salads to start, you could easily share a single pie to finish. I did not necessarily feel inclined for dessert but our bartender insisted their tiramisu was the best on the Upper East Side. Tiramisu is one of those desserts that can seem so cliched and dated today, and often is not very good, yet we had to test his claim of superiority and try it for ourselves. Indeed, we were rewarded perhaps with the best tiramisu I’ve ever tasted: incredibly moist and creamy, decadently rich, and a wonderful match with the moscato our bartender rewarded us with “on the house” for taking his recommendation.
By the time we were finished at about 3pm, the restaurant lunch crowd was finally slowing down and the atmosphere quieting. It could be tempting to linger for hours at Bella Blu’s bar but we had places to go – and had already run up a hefty bill of just under $100. That is pretty steep for two pizzas, a dessert, three drinks and two espressos, but then again, that’s New York City for you. A visit to Bella Blu is still much cheaper than airfare to Italy right now, and the food absolutely on par with what you can enjoy in the mother country.
Bella Blu Ristorante
967 Lexington Avenue
New York, New York 10021
Open daily 11:30am – midnight; take out and delivery available.