Life has its rules of thumb ("Never start a sentence with 'but'"; "Your line at the bank will always be the longest one"). Some rules lose their meaning as the culture changes ("Don't date a guy with a tattoo," a rule made before you had to take two tattoo-wearing genders into account). Some don't ("Always pack extra underwear"). And some are not so much rules as tips or clues ("Don't wear white shoes with black stockings"; "The first course is eaten with the outside silverware").
Dining out has its own rules of thumb. Calvin Trillin has formulated several: "Never eat in a restaurant on top of a building" (and its corollary, "Never eat in a revolving restaurant"); "Beware of La Maison de la Casa House," purveyors of continental food; and, "When dining out, always take a bagel, just in case." I could add a few: "Don't eat blue food"; "It can't be a good restaurant if you have to do the cooking"; "Beware of restaurants named after foods."
Names can be a sure indicator of what to expect, of a person or a place. Just think Levelland, Texas. Who do you know named Ray? Or Elvis? So you can't expect much from restaurants with names like "Enchilada's," "Fettucini's," or "Jambalaya's."
Rule of thumb No. 3 meant that my impression of Bellini's was not good, even before I ate there. And successive meals at Bellini's only reinforced the rules of thumb, hands down.
Bellini's is in the Centrum, where Star Canyon is located (only on the Welborn side of the building). The blaze of Star Canyon's glory has dimmed the fact that the Centrum used to be one of those karmically doomed locations, like the corner of Alpha and the tollway, or the block where Krazy Krab used to be on Oak Lawn. There was much tsk-ing of tongues when Stephan Pyles dared to sign a lease at the Centrum. It's still tough. Even though Bellini's has an outside position, it's hard to see what it is (and where it is) from the street, and even harder to see it from the elevator you'll take from the free underground parking as you probably won't find a parking space on the street.
The first thing you notice when you do find it is the immense black-and-white checkerboard floor--big enough to be a dance floor, you'll think, and sure enough, on Wednesday nights, a little trio plays soft, inoffensive, and unmemorable jazz. Not that it inspires anyone to so much as tap a toe, but there's room to move if you want to. Our host led us up a step to the nonsmoking section--which is the smallest part of the restaurant, this being Oak Lawn--while the vast expanse of tables with the view of a fountain is reserved for the smokestack crowd. The bar, though, is the only part of the restaurant we saw filled in the course of two visits.
I don't think we fit the restaurant's demographics--this mostly seemed to be an urbane and single crowd--but our waiter made the best of things, introducing himself as though we had just arrived at his own party and continuing to be friendly even after he'd figured out we were something of a dud date. We were brought a loaf of round sliced bread, evidently flavored with something (at least we could see what seemed to be specks of shredded herbs), but we couldn't taste anything, even when we ate it without the provided soft, overgarlicked spread.
Bellinis, of course, are the house specialty, so we tried one, and were mystified yet again at the drink's popularity. Put aside the a priori question of why anyone would want to do this to even mediocre champagne (or a peach, for that matter) and focus on the flavor itself, and it's still difficult to understand why anyone old enough to drink it would. This was the usual tall, sweet, frozen pastel thing that tasted like a 15-cent purchase from an ice-cream truck.
Bruschetta--soft, airy bread split lengthwise and toasted on a griddle--was topped with a salsalike mixture of diced tomatoes and fresh basil that was too watery for the lightness of the loaf that sogged up immediately. The vegetables were seasoned with so much fresh garlic that at first bite I thought there were jalapenos in with the tomatoes. (Speaking of rules of thumb, if you're going to serve raw garlic, you should always remove the "germ" from the middle of the clove.) The Caesar salad, though, was good, with a fine anchovy tang and croutons that were a better use of the lightweight bread. The house salad was even better, the robust balsamic dressing livening up the mix of crisp and bitter greens, tomatoes, and cucumbers, with a few daring slivers of sweet onion thrown in, a risk I wish more restaurants would take.
Pizza, called "designer" (this is Oak Lawn), had a big, puffy crust. We chose the small Margherita pie--which was too large for two--topped with sliced Roma tomatoes and way too much cheese. I don't want to get too didactic--I've already run out of thumbs--but when it comes to pizza, the more cheese is not necessarily the better. In this case the white mozzarella goo had not only deflated the puff, but seemed to have entirely subsumed the crust, so all that was left was a puddle of cheese surrounded by a brown bread dike. It wasn't even good for breakfast the next day.
The fillet of salmon was only slightly overdone. Fifteen years ago people in Texas were fine with this kind of fish; now a salmon cooked till it's pale pink all the way through seems almost as criminal as well-done steak. But it wasn't too dry, and over a bed of rice topped lavishly with vegetables--little bits of squash, zucchini, tomatoes, and onions all sauteed together--it was a good plate of food, simple and substantial.
On the other hand, the Alfredo sauce drowning our linguine was watery and absolutely tasteless. It does take a very long time to actually boil the water out of cream, and unfortunately there is no shortcut. It's that carefully concocted concentration of mildness, that troublesome essence that makes Alfredo so heady, even though the flavor is subtle.
Crabcakes were another indication of the validity of first impressions: Their too-perfectly molded roundness meant there could not possibly be big lumps of crab inside, that the main ingredient must be something more plastic, like Play-Doh, so it could be shaped this perfectly a long time before serving. Sure enough, the cakes seemed to be mostly soft-cooked rice, mixed with crab flakes and hard-cooked dark brown before being drizzled with a lobstery sauce and surrounded with unnecessary salad.
I was intrigued by something called "linguine chicken tetrazzini," recalling the rich sherry-laced casserole my mother and yours used to make with spaghetti and a can of "B in B" mushrooms, but this name was a conceit. This discomfort food was just strips of leftover chicken in a cream sauce with mushrooms and some tomatoes over a tangle of tough linguine.
Cheesecake was fine; tasca di mele, an apple turnover with a butterscotch sauce, only OK--to be specific, the apples had no flavor, and the sauce was too sweet.
You would label the Bellini's menu Italian, but it's Italian in the same way that I'm Lebanese--only by marriage and then a long way back. This is Italian food married to Middle American preference, and mostly it's the groceries that are recognizably Italian. (Here's some pasta, so this must be Italian.) Bellini's is Italian the same way, in fact, that a "bellini" is Italian. Juliet was wrong--there's plenty in a name.
Bellini's, 3102 Oak Lawn Ave. in the Centrum, (214) 522-7800. Open Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday, noon-11 p.m.; Sunday, 10:45 a.m.-3 p.m.
Caesar Salad $5.95
Salmone alla Griglia $12.95
Linguine Chicken Tetrazzini $7.95
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