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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@worldnet.att.net.

New Jersey Restaurant Review

Caffé La Bella
Note: June 2008: Restaurant now closed.
61 East Main Street
Moorestown, Burlington County, New Jersey
(856) 234-7755

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
10/27/2003

Caffé La Bella has been around a good long time. Twenty-two years to be exact... nine under its current proprietor, Jason Dogan. And that's quite a commendable run for an unpretentious little eatery that has been dubbed "Moorestown's best kept secret." The cuisine surely isn't about to set any new culinary standards; it's your basic, straightforward Italian fare rounding up all the usual suspects -- seafood, pasta, veal, and chicken -- proffered in prodigious portions at reasonable prices, which, undoubtedly, accounts for the establishment's continuing popularity.

When my wife and I lived in the area, we paid calls here quite frequently and always enjoyed our dining experiences. Our two most recent visits, however, the first in nearly fifteen years, garnered decidedly mixed reactions. The décor hasn't changed a great deal: Norman Rockwell prints still keep company with French Impressionists, while cranberry tablecloths and fresh flowers add a comfortable splash of color to the cozy, bustling space.

The food, though, is another story. While it would certainly be unfair to say that the vittles have taken a nosedive, there is no question in my mind that the current emphasis is upon quantity rather than quality. Unless you have the peristaltic capacity of a starving yak, trust me, you'll be pleading with your server to commandeer a doggy bag -- if for no other reason than fear of offending the chef's delicate sensibilities.

And yet... even in the midst of this establishment's gastronomic ups and downs, one item has remained a delightful constant: the incredibly addictive garlic bread. It is perfectly toasted, exhibiting just the proper "crunch" without threatening any demonstrative damage to your costly dental work; and the seasonings manage to perk up the palate without undue discomfiture to your spouse/significant other, or distress to any vampires who may be lurking nearby.

After this high-water mark, I'm afraid, things do get a bit dicey... You may dine reasonably well here, but choices must be made with a good degree of circumspection.

Given the gargantuan dimensions of the entrées, and the fact that soup or salad is included with your meal, starters strike me as entirely superfluous. On the other hand, should your appetite be equal to the task, bivalves offer the greatest chance of success. The clams and mussels marinara ($7.25), marred by just the slightest hint of grit, are plump and succulent and swim to table in a pleasantly murky sea that hints provocatively of the primordial depths. In a variation on the theme, the clams possilipo ($7.25), aided and abetted by a zippy red sauce, are also quite recommendable.

Other appetizers include a good but not exceptional offering of roasted red peppers and mozzarella ($7.95), generic antipasto adorned with the usual ho-hum assortment of meats, cheeses, and pickled vegetables ($6.95), and a standard issue shrimp cocktail ($8.95).

Among the freebies, the various soups -- lentil/vegetable and tomato rice, for example -- tend to be under seasoned and underwelming... but they are infinitely preferable to the less than exciting gathering of gelid greens and eminently forgettable bottled dressings.

Like all that has preceded them, entrées aren't about to raise the culinary bar, but they do offer the diner substantial portions of solid Italian comfort food at a downright decent bang for the buck, Which is, in and of itself, cause for a certain degree of optimism... Once again, however, prudent selection is a mandatory prerequisite.

Most offerings are quite robust in nature and, as a general rule, the heartier -- and simpler -- the better, as subtlety and finesse are not among this kitchen's strong points. The shrimp fra diavolo ($18.95), for instance, features perfectly sautéed crustaceans set on a veritable mountain of linguine embellished with a zippy -- and I do mean ZIPPY -- flood of marinara. If you're accustomed to the wishy-washy sauces that usually accompany this particular dish, your taste buds are about to receive a wake-up call, as there is more than enough diavolo to go 'round.

The veal saltimbocca ($18.95) is another worthy contender. Fork-tender medallions are sequestered beneath layers of prosciutto and provolone and surrounded by an extremely rich brown sauce redolent of sage.

The eggplant parmigiana ($14.95), a traditional favorite at Neapolitan nirvanas, isn't bad either. The breading is decidedly crisp rather than soggy, unfortunately there is simply too much of it; one has to send out a search party for the eggplant. And the entire dish -- including a monstrous mound of spaghetti -- is flooded with the same generic red sauce subordinating the ravioli ($13.95), the chicken parm ($15.95), and sundry sides of pasta.

As a general rule, however, the restaurant's hearty red sauces are to be preferred over its ill-fated forays into lemon-white wine concoctions; which, given the kitchen's obvious limitations, lack the proper delicacy of disposition. Whether gussying up the veal piccata ($18.95), special salmon over linguine ($19.95), scallops ($18.95), or flounder francese ($17.95), the sauces are too tart, too viscous, and too demonstrative to do anything but turn off the taste buds.

Denouements ($4.95), courtesy of Classic Desserts, are banal at best and, in my opinion, not worth the extra calories. The chocolate-raspberry cake and Oreo cheesecake are the best of the lot. The Key lime pie is the right color but a rather strange consistency, and the lemon mousse cake tastes decidedly artificial. Coffee ($1.10) is weak and insipid, and espresso ($2.50) lacks punch.

If you plan to dine at Caffé La Bella, heed these few words of advice: Major in red sauce... take the doggy bag and run... enjoy coffee and dessert at home.

Cuisine: Italian
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 10:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 4:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 4:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.; Sunday Breakfast: 9:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m.; Sunday Brunch: 10:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: MC, V
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Ample street parking
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Difficult

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