My concept of proper Italian cuisine was formed in my youth, under the careful tutelage of my very knowledgeable mother and father. Everyone in my family got dressed-up when “going out for supper.” For me, the works: shirt, coat, and tie. Dad wore a suit, and Mom added a hat and gloves to her ensemble. Dining out was an event, and especially so at our neighborhood Italian restaurant.
My family all knew Maria who ran the place, her husband Papa, their four sons and one gorgeous daughter. The restaurant was in their home; they were the fourth generation of the family to run it. You took your seat in their dining room at their white linen-covered table. A solemn moment indeed, like kneeling in church. No hymnals, or in this case menus, were to be found. Instead, you got Maria bustling out from the kitchen, wrapped in a cloud of sweet-smelling steam and wiping her hands on her apron.
Maria was my first exposure to Italian food that wasn’t pizza or spaghetti, and seafood that didn’t have breading or scales and fins as part of its outer covering. I can still see her at table-side. Chin up, hand on hip, with the bearing of Caesar addressing the legions, Maria proclaimed the menu for that evening’s supper, from soup right down to the dessert. Having seconds was expected, even mandatory, and heaven help you if you didn’t clean your plate.
Since then, an age has passed for me. I’d just about given up hope of ever encountering simple, wholesome Italian cuisine like Maria’s ever again. I can thank a member of my dinearound bunch for inviting the rest of us to meet a good friend of his over at the Bella Vita restaurant in Johnson City. The good friend turned out to be Chef Safet “Sam” Rugovac, the culinary genius whose offerings are to me a gustatory trip back to simpler, happier times.
Since my friend was more familiar with Chef Rugovac and Bella Vita than the rest of the dine-around bunch, we all placed ourselves in his capable hands. By most standards, Bella Vita’s interior is almost spartan in its simplicity. Chef Rugovac eschews the Italian restaurant cliches of red-checked tablecloths and straw fascia-ed Chianti bottles for comfortable chairs, a relaxed atmosphere, and absolutely no Al Martino crooning away on the jukebox.
Bella Vita’s menu is straightforward. Yes, there are pasta dishes available ($10.95 and up), along with New York-style pizza from $7.55. While excellent, by limiting yourself to these offerings you would miss out on Chef Rugovac’s virtuoso skill in preparing one of Bella Vita’s remarkable entrees for your meal.
Our party’s knowledgeable host chose his favorite, the Calamari Fra Diabblo ($16.95), while another member opted for the Salmon Florentine ($16.95) she’d seen another patron enjoying as we walked in. My dining partner ordered Bella Vita’s signature entree ($15.95) with chicken instead of veal. Our diet-conscious friend, still true to her plan and willpower, ordered a Caprese Salad ($8.95) with a side of sauteed broccoli ($6.95). My perusal of the “Carne” section of the menu turned up Scarpaello ($16.95), a dish I’d last encountered with my legs under Maria’s dinner table way back when. While there are several variations of this dish, Chef Rugovac’s version has a definite Adriatic/Illyrian bent. Thick slices of lean, flavorful Italian sausage are tossed with artichokes, mushrooms and garlic, and all of it sauteed in a lemon wine sauce.
Our orders arrived accompanied by a freshening of our table’s basket of excellent Italian bread. The Salmon Florentine was a poached delight, served on fresh spinach and lightly garnished with a selection of Italian vegetables. The Caprese Salad featured (correctly) semi-ripened Roma tomatoes paired with sliced Mozzarella, roasted peppers and fresh greens. Her side order of sauteed broccoli was tasty enough to be a dish in its own right. Our party’s host had his Fra Diabblo well in hand, managing a low warning growl or two when another’s fork strayed too close to his plate. My partner’s Bella Vita dish featured chicken, shrimp, artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes in a champagne sauce reduction. From what I could gather, the dish was “out of this world.”
I didn’t get a chance to taste it or any of the other entrees, being too busy with my Scarpaellopowered time machine. The dish’s name derives from the Italian “Scarpariello,” or “shoemaker-style,” but there is no way any old boot would taste this good no matter how it was prepared. Reducing down to a lovely bronze color, the dish’s lemon wine sauté had infused into the artichokes, garlic and mushrooms. It made a tart counterpoint to the flavorful sausage, whose seasoning blended just the right amount of spices with the merest hint of fennel seed. The end of the meal found me busily swabbing the last bit of sauce and juices from my plate, determined to prolong my trip through time to the last possible moment.
The evening’s tab for our party of five at Bella Vita was $95 including tip, and worth every dime of it. Culinary artistry the caliber of that practiced by Chef Safet Rugovac deserves both the recompense and recognition that goes with the talent.
In Chef Rugovac’s Scarpaello, I had a meal to linger long over, one deserving of time spent in hours, not minutes enjoying the memories as much as the meal evoking them.
With each bite, I could almost hear Maria hollering, “Papa, ask the kid if he wants seconds.”
Oh yes, please.
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