Café Bella: A new home for the holidays

Italian restaurant invites you to linger

Let this ristorante Italiano make you an offer you can’t refuse. Again.

Anyone who’s ever been to Italy knows how food and passion can come together at the same time. At once sensual, colorful, merry and celebratory, it’s a lot like romance — a seductive experience. Carefully and lovingly prepared, Italians know how to savor their meals, lingering at the table through the last bit of wine and conversation.

This is exactly what you’ll want to do at Café Bella (formerly Bella Figura).

Owner Jack Ainsworth knows how an Italian host should behave and is quick to sit down. At 71, he’s back in business and reflecting on a Lafayette legacy of 50 years as well as his new location.

“The woodwork in the bar is all new, the Italian mural — we started over,” he said. “This is it. I’m not retiring, I’ve already done that. The most miserable I’ve ever been, but it gave me the momentum to come out with something good.”

Part romantic, classic Italian restaurant and part café, there’s a bustling party in the bar spiced by the laughter of women, while well-dressed couples enjoy more intimate white table-cloth dining. The tablecloths disappear at noon for a more casual lunch and come out again at night. Veteran chef Terry Harrison is still in the kitchen, and the menu is an excellent mix of classic and comfort Italian dishes plus some that embrace the local, like pasta Trahan.

For antipasti, try the grilled Italian sausage with caramelized onions and red wine reduction ($8.75). And while Ainsworth caters to his clientele with locally-made Langlinais French bread, it’s the wheat bread from New Orleans you need to try. Save yourself the time and ask the kitchen to bring two. The fennel in the sausage alone will break your heart. Pair it with a good Chianti — Ainsworth will tell you which one.

Where you go from there depends upon how Italian you are or wish to be. Italians expect to order both a pasta and main course as part of the meal, and believe one will never be truly satisfied without it. Pasta Ravello pairs both shrimp and crawfish with a smoky tasso in an elegantly rich basil sherry cream sauce ($18.95) while the 11-layer lasagna ($13.50) balances veal, pork and beef, ricotta, mozzarella, tomatoes and more in a delicious mix of textures fine enough to please The Godfather himself. Di prim’ordine — first class.

Men may be able go on to a secondo, or entrée, and will not be disappointed by classic Veal Piccata — pan-sauteed veal with lemon caper sauce over wild mushroom ravioli ($17.95) or Snapper Sicilia, pan-seared snapper with roasted red pepper cream sauce over sautéed spinach ($21.95).

The service is polite and conscientious. “They don’t make it here if they’re only interested in money,” explained Ainsworth.

And since Italian hospitality politely refuses to recognize when guests reach their limit, expect the server to suggest dessert and coffee. Or if Ainsworth’s in the mood, his homemade limoncello, which brings us back to the Italian view of things. What better consolation is there than people and wine?

Perhaps that there’s no wait list. Yet.