When some restaurants open, I wonder who exactly the target diner is. Not Bellini’s Bistro. Kleinhans Music Hall is one of the great American concert halls, home to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Tens of thousands of people pour through its doorways for events each year. They sit down for an hour or two or three, then get up and leave. In the normal course of human affairs, some will arrive or leave hungry. That is where Bellini’s Bistro comes in.
Being located across Normal Street only steps from Kleinhans, helps keep the 350 Pennsylvania St. address viable as a restaurant space, to the benefit of its neighborhood. The 35-seat space used to be Coda, then most recently, Prospero. Then it went dark for two years.
This fall, powered by the gravity of Kleinhans’ draw, its lights flickered back to life again like a trick birthday candle.
The place is run by Susan and Mike Navarro, and Joseph Maiorana, who together ran Bellini’s on Delaware Avenue, where Snooty Fox is now, before selling it in 2006. What they’re presenting on Pennsylvania Street is a stripped-down menu of Italian appetizers and entrees. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. After absorbing the fullness of orchestra, you might enjoy a trio playing a concise list of standards.
There’s bottled beer and a short wine list topped by a Bolla Le Poiane Ripasso for $41. There’s also a Bellini ($8), the peach-and-Prosecco cocktail, which I somehow missed when I scanned the wine list.
It’s a fine-dining setting, with white tablecloths and tealights on the tables. Briny olive tapenade arrived with fresh, room-temperature bread.
[Related: Last week's dining review on Carte Blanche]
A mushroom crostini ($8) had four small bread slices topped with caramelized onion, bacon, mushrooms and Gorgonzola cheese. It was a tidy, sweet bite, like smoky French onion soup as a spread for toast.
Meatballs ($12) were firm but not chewy, two solid medium-sized orbs good for scooping up with meaty tomato sauce and cheese-crusted bread. The menu warned the sauce was spicy, but I didn’t find that so.
Brodetto ai fruitti di mare ($13) was shrimp and calamari in saffron butter over fettuccine. The seafood was tender, and the thoroughly enjoyable pasta wore a light sauce livened up with a touch of orange zest.
My favorite dish of the night was Bellini’s stuffed banana peppers ($10), served with crostini. I order this Buffalo standard frequently, and am usually disappointed by its undercooking or deterred by ferocious chile heat. This time, its rich filling, led by Asiago and Gorgonzola cheese, tamed the split chiles’ fire into a pleasant glow.
For entrees, we chose more seafood pasta, duck, steak and chicken. Two more pastas, pesto bucatini ($15) and Bolognese over gemelli ($17), rounded out the menu, with a salmon special.
My saltimbocca di pollo ($18), chicken breast topped with prosciutto and Asiago cheese in a beurre blanc sauce, was plenty tasty. Even though I missed the flavor of sage, I cleaned my plate. It was served with real mashed potatoes, and grilled zucchini and red bell pepper.
The vegetables were fresh, but they belonged to the school of grilled vegetables that equates grill marks with cooking. I like raw zucchini, and have no problems with it, but I want grilled vegetables tenderized, transformed by the application of heat.
The duck breast au poivre ($24), with a sauce of port, peppercorns and brandy, was a pink medium rare, its skin cooked but not crusty. Its accompanying risotto was plenty cheesy but its grains lacked firmness.
Adriatic seafood fettuccine ($21) offered shrimp, mussels and calamari in a creamy tomato sauce. This was comfort food from the heart of the sea, the sauce enriched with shellfish essence, with well-cooked pasta.
The 14-ounce grilled ribeye steak ($29) was the entrée I wished I’d ordered. It was juicy pink yet crusted at its edges, and ennobled by a garlic béarnaise butter sauce. With more of those good mashed potatoes, and the grilled vegetables, it was a satisfying plate.
A layer cake crowned with a golden mane of toasted coconut and fluffy baked cheesecake with a grace note of lemon are desserts ($6) I’d order again, over the underpowered chocolate version.
Bellini’s serves about what you would expect for about what you would expect to pay, maybe a little less. I didn’t experience soaring arias of delight, but if you’re coming from Kleinhans, maybe you’ve had all of those you needed for the evening. Maybe you’re in the mood for a bottle of wine, a competent steak, and some meatballs. Maybe before having your ears filled, you seek a quiet place where you can hear what your friends have to say.
If that’s what you’re looking for, the restaurant succeeds. More grace notes would be nice, but at least you can get a Bellini at Bellini’s.
Bellini’s Bistro – 7 plates (out of 10)
Where: 350 Pennsylvania St., 342-2388
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Price range: Starters, $7-$13; entrees, $15-$29
Wheelchair-access: Yes, at side door
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