First Bite: Bambinelli's Italian Cafe

by Skip on December 6, 2008

in Birmingham, Alabama,First Bite

Bambolino's rustic Italian

Pasta with Cannellini Beans and Spinach

I am just going to go out there and say it: the food at Bambinelli’s Italian Cafe, the new neighborhood Italian spot that opened in English Village last week, is surprisingly good. I honestly expected little of an Italian place moving into Ciao’s old digs, where my experiences were mediocre at best. But I am not going to dwell on Ciao, as it is always sad to see a local restaurant shuttered.

According to my waiter, the cafe had a soft opening a few days before Thanksgiving (a bit sooner than suggested a few weeks ago). I went for some exploratory dinners this past Monday and Tuesday. Both times, we sat by the roaring fireplace in the dining room next to Joe Muggs. I’m a fan of the fireplace. Some curtains or throw rugs would help in there because even with only 10 or 12 people, it got loud very quickly (lots of echo). The interior still a bit austere.

The menu is lengthy and covers all the usual suspects–pizzas, pastas, parmigianas–along with some distressing Americanized bits. I haven’t been for lunch yet but am looking forward to one of my guilty pleasures–one of the dishes that reminds me of growing up on Long Island–the chicken parmigiana sub (though we called them heroes). Now back to the food I have eaten.

Fried Homemade Calamari

Fried Homemade Calamari

Fried calamari usually helps me form a good first impression, since they’re easy to botch. Good calamari, for me, usually heralds a good dinner. Bettola is still my favorite Birmingham squid spot. Apparently these are prepared in-house, and mine came perfectly cooked–tender with well-spiced breading. The marinara sauce is a bit sweet for my taste.

Then came an actually fresh complimentary salad. There’s no pallid bowl of limp lettuce, still-frozen julienned carrots, a couple of sad onions, and an even more depressed tomato here. It might be a spring lettuce from-the-box mix, but whatever. It’s fresh.

4-Cheese Gnocchi

4-Cheese Gnocchi

Pasta with Spinach and Cannellini beans and the 4-Cheese Gnocchi were next. Both were perfectly good dishes, though I had a few reservations. The pasta is something I make for myself quite frequently but hardly ever see on a menu. It’s rustic comfort food. Theirs is a bit garlic-heavy and possibly too pricey (at around $12) for a plate of pasta and beans. And for the 4-Cheese Gnocchi, not many places offer the little dumplings, and with good reason. They are difficult to prepare, and frozen ones typically suck (read: bland, tough). I haven’t met the Bambinelli’s chef yet, but whoever they are, they made respectable gnocchi. (Deb from Smitten Kitchen has an excellent commentary on the travails of her gnocchi experience). The cheeziness dialed back, but that’s just me. There is one other gnocchi option that I am eagerly anticipating.

Pepperoni Pizza

Pepperoni Pizza

We left in good spirits, satisfied and sated. Upon returning the next night, I was set on pizza. Having most recently lived in New York, I am particular about my pizza and have found most local options lacking (except, again, for Bettola, whose pizza I love). At the last minute I inexplicably added pepperoni. It seemed like a good to do at the time. After the salads and a round of fried calamari (just as good as the pervious night), my pizza arrived.

Of the three major pizza components–crust, sauce, and cheese–the crust is my make-or-break feature. It can’t be too thick or too thin. Too doughy or too brittle. I prefer aged dough. Thin, chewy, and pliable are the characteristics I look for, and I was pleased by my Bambinelli’s crust. It’s just under what I’d consider too thick and had a did well with the chew-factor. I would order it again (only without the pepperoni. I am just not really into meat pizzas).

My frequent dining partner K Black ordered Chicken Marsala. Based on experience, I shy away from that dish when eating out. The chicken always seems to be dry, and the sauce goopy. This was neither. The chicken was juicy and the dish wasn’t oversauced. Even with my pizza, I was a bit jealous.

The waiter for the second expedition explained that the cafe was still in the “soft opening” phase, which makes sense. The service was a bit rough and the kitchen timing could have been better (the second night the calamari and entrees came out within minutes of each other). If I were in the kitchen, which I am not (and shouldn’t be), I’d dial back some of the flavors (in these cases, the garlic and the cheese). Nevertheless, it’s a great start for a good neighborhood restaurant. (If they start a half-price wine night, you’ll know where to find me. Oh, right. Speaking of which, their wine list is quite good too).

Bambinelli’s Italian Cafe

2031 Cahaba Road

Mountain Brook, AL


Dan is the producer of ‘Ham Sandwich. He sometimes longs for breezy walks down Broadway with a slice of pizza larger than his face. First Bite is for first reactions to new restaurants (or at least restaurants that are new to us). We aren’t crazy about the idea of being restaurant critics, but it’s likely we’ll be critical from time to time. First Bites will have followups.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Cary C. Baker December 28, 2008 at 2:47 pm

Are you all opened Sundays for lunch? The family would love to come after church.

Cary C. Baker December 28, 2008 at 2:49 pm

Please let me know if you open on Sundays for lunch after church. The family has talked about coming. Thanks

Noah February 18, 2009 at 10:25 am

Bleh… had the veal parmigiana and it was horrible. The only redeeming part of my meal here was the salad. Great dressing.

doug April 12, 2009 at 10:08 pm

I thought it was completely awful. Ordered four bottles of wine before we found one they actually had. Food was beyond ordinary, service absurd and the atmosphere reminds me of a concrete block bbq joint I went to in Springville once. Except this place is in English Village. The neon OPEN sign they’ve recently erected along the Cahaba Rd facade is an especially classy touch.

Also, Grouper Parmasean? I can’t even contemplate that idea, but I assure you it’s on the plastic coated menu. Which, by the way, features a photo of a fork spinning pasta noddles on the cover. Another classy touch to be sure.

I give this place six more months. There were tumbleweeds blowing through the night we were there.

Dan April 16, 2009 at 4:18 pm

You made it clear how bad your experience was there, but what did you eat? I agree fully that the neon sign and menu art are more than a little tacky, but these guys aren’t trying to be Bottega. That said, I thought the prices were a little steep for casual neighborhood food.

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