Food review: Bella Napoli, Shrewsbury
Town was dead. Shrewsbury looked as though a nuclear emergency had been declared and the place had been evacuated quicker than you can say: “Quick, run, the nukes are coming now.”
There was as much chance of walking into an open restaurant and bagging a table as there was of Market Drayton Town beating Manchester City in the FA Cup. The usual haunts were closed, the streets were empty and a TV dinner from Tesco seemed the most likely option.
Bella Napoli, however, is a restaurant that goes against the grain. In one small corner of Shrewsbury, it was offering its own version of La Dolce Vita.
Bella Napoli describes itself as a classic neighborhood Italian in Shrewsbury, serving up a taste of wood-fired pizzas, pasta and risotto. It’s open all hours, with mid-morning coffee and homemade cake earlier in the day. Theirs is a menu for success and couples were settling in for something tasty at what-seemed-like the only open restaurant in town.
Italian food is a dream. Spend time in Italy and you can wander the streets of nowheresville towns and villages, or iconic cities, to eat like a king.
Pastas will be hung out to dry, shellfish will be wrigglingly alive, fruit will be bursting with ripeness and wine will be flowing along with ribald tales.
La Bella Napoli captures something of that vibe. The head waiter was busily idiosyncratic as we made his way around the room. I asked for a large water, he brought me a small. And then when that ran out, he brought another small one. And he delivered both with such grace and panache that I realised he was right and I was wrong and what I’d wanted was two small bottles of water after all.
He was the acme of charm, albeit in the most scatterbrained manner.
The dining room was classic trattoria. Light, bright and airy, without needless adornment or ornamentation, it was a place that welcomed hustle and bustle.
Bella Napoli’s website talks of its head chef’s love of Italy’s finest recipes and its owners’ passion for Italian cuisine. It proclaims an affinity for using only the finest ‘mare e monte’ of land and sea ingredients. And it speaks of one dish imparticular: Rissoti Pollo e Spinach – a hearty, creamy risotto, packed with chicken, spinach, garlic, and tangy parmesan. It sounded great. I ordered it.
But not before starting with a simple plate of calamari. Squid is one of nature’s overlooked ingredients. It’s available fresh from fishmongers in town where, cooked correctly, it’s almost as delicate and tender as prawns. But overcooked, or cooked from frozen, and it’s a different proposition.
And the version on offer at La Bella Napoli didn’t excite. A little overcooked and ever-so-slightly tough, it was cooked in a pleasant batter; that being the highlight of the dish.
Beside was a scattering of limp salad leaves that had started to wilt and lose whatever life they might once have had. It was perfunctory food, a dish without passion or endeavour.
The main was better. Rissoti Pollo e Spinach was as creamy and satisfying as the website had suggested. Small pieces of chicken had been beautifully caramelised and were still tender. The rice was al dente, with the slightest bite and a chalky white interior. The texture was rich and starchy and the dish had been seasoned well.
The tangy parmesan that had been advertised on the website was awful. Sprinkled on the top, it had the flavour and texture of sawdust and was appallingly dry. Ready Steady Cook once told off viewers for using dried herbs rather than fresh and for using pre-grated parmesan rather than shaving it right off the block.
And while I’ve no idea whether La Bella Napoli uses 30-month DOP Parmiagiano Reggiani or something from the cash and carry, all that I could think of as I ate it was the powdery stuff they used to bang on about on Ready Steady Cook. I made sure not to add any more to my dish.
I’d asked the waiter to pare back the portion size, which he did, and but for the dreadful cheese, it was a reasonably pleasing course.
I skipped dessert. The diners around me had puddings that looked pleasant but unremarkable and having consumed more than my fair share of protein and starch and been entertained by a marvellously idiosyncratic restaurant manager, it was time to pay the bill.
The BBC and now-Scala DJ Simon Mayo has a number of signature themes. Among the most popular is a three-word review. And were we to apply the same three-word principle to La Bella Napoli, ‘pleasant but unremarkable’ would be a decent shout.
Everything’s kinda alright, there’s nothing that’s particularly underwhelming or disappointing – apart from the limp salad leaves.
But while it’s curiously enjoyable and while lashings of bonhomie are served at no cost, it’s almost not a place for gastronomic thrills.
If you’re looking for a truly authentic taste of Italy, you’re not necessarily going to find it here. There aren’t racks of drying pasta, super fresh tomatoes or any of the pleasures associated with dining in that beautiful, beautiful country.
Excellence is, of course, hard to find and as Shropshire hurtles towards the 2020s it’s no longer synonymous with that.
There are plenty of reasonable restaurants and quite a few decent independents – which is more than most counties have. It’s not disingenuous, unfair or harsh to describe La Bella Napoli in that manner.
The Castle Street restaurant offers decent, moderately priced food, a warm welcome, a buzzy atmosphere and a team committed to providing the best hospitality that they’re capable of.
And, truthfully, that puts them ahead of many of their competitors.