786 Grand Blvd. Deer Park, NY 631-274-3378
Italian restaurant with family-style portions.Hours: Mon.: Closed; Tues.-Sat.: 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sun.: 4 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Ambience: Very Good Service: Good Credit cards: Accepted
I took one bite of Bellissimo's baked rolled lasagna and put down my fork. I needed a moment to savor what happens when pasta, spinach, ricotta, mortadella and mozzarella harmoniously unite beneath a mantle of bright tomato sauce and mellow cheese.
"This doesn't taste like restaurant food," I said to my husband. "It tastes as though someone's grandma is in the kitchen."
A few minutes later, we overheard our solicitous young waiter tell the people at the next table that the chef was, indeed, his grandmother.
On our next visit to this Deer Park strip mall eatery, we got to meet 75-year-old kitchen doyenne Josephine Foresto, who began cooking in restaurants after coming to the United States from Naples, in 1951. The vivacious Foresto came into the dining room attired in a black camisole and dancer's leggings -- her regular work clothes -- and asked us how everything was. "Super," was the unanimous reply.
And it wasn't just the food we were talking about. Most everything at this romantic little strip-mall hideaway was done with taste and care, from the Tuscan design of the dining room (courtesy of Foresto's daughter, decorator and sous chef Carmela Vince) to its small, unpretentious menu.
I never expect much when I order baked clams, but these were especially satisfying, the briny clam juices flavoring the unusually light bread topping, the whole meat of the clam beneath. The trendier mesclun salad with green and black olives, tomato, Gorgonzola cheese and walnuts, while fresh and artfully composed, was actually less impressive. But if you share a pizza (we tried both the Margharita and the Napolitana Italian-style), you'll understand how simplicity, in the right hands, is a virtue. The flavorsome crust, crisp and thin but not crackerlike, stood up well to the vibrant tomato, cheese and spice toppings.
Chicken breast cacciatore -- boneless breasts in a light tomato, onion and pepper sauce -- was sprightly yet mellow, served over pasta. Choices, in addition to spaghetti, linguine or penne, included whole- wheat spaghetti and brown rice fusilli. Those watching their intake of refined flour might do well to try that fusilli, a near- ringer for the "regular" stuff.
I preferred the ultra-tender chicken Marsala with mushrooms to the fussier chicken baci baci, a stuffed and batter- fried composition. The classic veal parmigiana was a rich meld of breaded veal, mozzarella and tomato sauce.
It would be a pity to skip dessert, since Foresto's creamy, boozy tiramisu is a standout. And she makes an Italian cheesecake that's positively ethereal.
You'd be smart to reserve ahead for the kind of home cooking you probably wish you could get at home. Bellissimo, indeed.
Reviewed by Joan Reminick, 11/19/04.