“ Address: Unit 52 / Touchwood Court / Mill Lane / Solihull / B91 5GS „
When my daughter had a morning hospital appointment recently we decided to have a bite to eat afterwards, not having to rush back for the afternoon session of school due to the appointment falling fortuitously on a half day. This was a week or so before Christmas so we made an impromptu trip to the Touchwood Shopping Centre in Solihull, where we could do a little last minute shopping and also find somewhere a bit more exciting than McDonalds or Subway for lunch. After wandering around for a while we found ourselves outside Bella Italia, and reasoned that this would be as good a place as any - mum spotted an advertising board outside informing us that children ate free from a set menu, meaning I could save a little cash by not having to purchase my two year old sons meal as he's totally unfussy and will generally eat what's put in front of him.
~x~x~x~ Keeping Up Appearances ~x~x~x~
While the exterior of this branch of Bella Italia is well maintained and welcoming, I was surprised at the shabbiness once we went inside. The level of lighting is very low and although this does add a cosy atmosphere I do think it also works to their advantage in that the lack of bright lights helps to hide the general air of neglect in the restaurant. It's not that Bella Pasta is dirty, it just looks poorly cared for throughout - the artwork (such as it is) on the walls are faded and dated, there are noticeable chips in the wooden chairs and appallingly our plastic-made-to-look-like-linen table cloth had the marks of a clumsily stubbed out cigarette despite smoking in this restaurant being banned since 2007! There was a half eaten meatball on the floor underneath the table and the first table we were given felt sticky as though it hadn't been cleaned properly, we moved due to the fact that a high chair couldn't be put against the table in the first instance but I'd have asked to change anyway as I felt as though we'd been shoved up the corner even though the restaurant wasn't a quarter full at the time of our arrival.
There are plenty of tables to choose from (not that diners seem to get much choice) and glancing around I saw that different sized parties can be easily accommodated. The layout is strange and ever so slightly annoying in that tables seem to be arranged at the most awkward angle possible. The best example is arguably the table we ended up eating at, being placed so closely to a table for two that every time I pushed my chair out even a little the back was practically touching the side of their table and if I wanted to get up completely I had to turn around and apologise in advance! Very awkward! Not to mention the irritation the other diners must have felt at having a family group encroaching into their quiet time through the thoughtlessness of the waiting staff. As it was David had to be perched on the end of the table in his (pretty good quality) high chair and his bulky pushchair folded and shoved under the table as there was simply nowhere else to put it where it wouldn't be in the way - and it mattered not a jot to the staff that it was patently (and literally) under our feet.
~x~x~x~ The (Bella) Italian Dining Experience ~x~x~x~
At first glance the menu doesn't look terribly extensive, but in fairness they seem to be trying to specialise in the best of Italian dining and tend to offer a small selection of the types of food you'd automatically think of when pondering the cuisine in this part of the world. A huge selection of pasta dishes, pizza, meatballs, various antipasto and olive selections - I was curious about their 'world famous' Calzone folded pizzas, but unfortunately the only flavour I fancied the look of was unavailable that day so I ended up choosing something else rather than risk being disappointed with my meal. We'd already decided we were each going to have a three course meal and as we weren't impressed with the set lunchtime choice (which isn't very flexible) it seemed to take us an awfully long time to peruse the menu, personally I picked and discarded several options before arriving at the meal I eventually ate - and Alice was even more indecisive!
We each opted for fruit juice to drink and I was happy with the quality, if not with the rather excessive price. There are several juice and juice-based drinks to choose from as well as a good selection of hot drinks, including liqueur coffees, and soft/fizzy drinks. All are priced highly in my opinion with everything being around the £2.50 mark, I decided for this reason to make one drink last me for the duration of my meal - it's not that I'm tight (I'm not!!!) but when you're only drinking non-alcoholic drinks it always seems pointless to me to have the drinks bill make up a huge percentage of the final cost, which it very quickly would at these prices! I noted a reasonably good selection of beers, spirits and cocktails available at prices not too much higher than in the pub, a surprisingly extensive wine list completes the drinks selection and frankly if we'd been in the mood for alcoholic drinks I'd have probably opted to share a bottle of wine with mum as that seems to be the most cost effective way of drinking in here.
The selection of starters is fantastic and it was here where I struggled massively to decide - eventually ordering Polpette, a pork and beef meatball dish in a chunky tomato sauce. Mum and Alice both chose the Soup of the Day, which was Minestrone that day and served with a slice of Ciabatta. We waited around ten minutes for our meal to be brought to us, in the meantime the staff served David's breadsticks and a colouring book (one crayon... sigh...) to amuse him while we waited. The breadsticks were beautifully presented in the 'broken into smashed-up tiny shards and thrown into a ceramic flower pot' style, which didn't bother David in the slightest but definitely gave me the impression that Bella Italia really couldn't give a stuff what you think.
I must admit my Polpette was delicious - eight generous sized meatballs in a sauce so chunky it's practically a hot tomato bed rather than a bonafide sauce; a little too rich for me if I'm honest as I'm not a huge fan of tomato in the first place, but it was perfectly possible to devour the meatballs without finding yourself with a mouth full of wet tomato so all's well that ends well. The meatballs themselves were juicy and perfectly cooked; they're small meatballs but larger than those I'd expect to receive as part of a starter, the whole thing was topped with mozzarella which melted beautifully over the hot meatballs and gave the dish a deliciously luxurious consistency. The soup was absolutely wonderful, Alice didn't like it so David and I shared her bowl - it was chunky and flavoursome with a perfectly seasoned broth, the large pieces of vegetable being fresh and really tasty. Both starters came with a slice of Ciabatta bread, very dry and hard - tasty dipped in the soup but a little toothache inducing eaten alone with the meatballs.
I had a taste on for pizza but also fancied something with a bit of oomph so ordered a Pepperoni Piccante, which is a basic thin crust pepperoni pizza with slices of green chilli to give it a bit of heat. This was bloomin' delicious, one of the nicest pizzas I've ever eaten. I took the precaution of removing all visible chilli before I ate it (I don't particularly like harsh hot flavours even if I do enjoy a little spice) so was pleased that the heat had transferred to the overall taste of the pizza - it actually had more of a kick than I expected it to, a kick emphasised by the fact that a spicier than average pepperoni is used. It's really, really finger-lickingly good. The base is perfect; I HATE stodgy pizza bases and this was just right for me, deserving of its thin and crispy label with a lovely dusty finish on the crust. The sauce/cheese/pepperoni ratio was perfect and the pizza was a nice size - not being a massive pizza eater I couldn't eat the whole thing but the beauty of pizza is being able to share out the leftovers! Mum and Alice agreed it was excellent pizza, although David looked a little shell shocked at the spiciness when he stole a piece off the plate.
Mum had the main course sized portion of my meatball starter which was served with the freshest and most delicious spaghetti (I tried a bit!). Again the sauce was extremely thick but it seemed more manageable with the addition of the pasta, she was served heaps of meatballs with a generous portion of spaghetti - she ate it all but mentioned how filling it was, I suspect the final few bites were forced down and it really was a massive stodgy meal. Alice's meal was a disgrace - she'd opted for a Pollo Ciabatta which is a chargrilled chicken on a Ciabatta bun. She likes salad but not with hot meat so asked for it to be served separately to the burger. Now, any chef with an ounce of sense would realise you still want the mayo on your chicken burger as it's naturally a pretty dry meal - not here. What arrived was the most horrendously dry burger I've ever seen, the pile of limp lettuce and onion on the plate looked sweatily unappetising and when she asked for mayo her burger was pretty much cold by the time it arrived to moisten the dish enough to enable swallowing. The final insult for poor Alice was after three bites finding the chicken was raw inside. RAW. Not undercooked, raw through at least a quarter of the chicken breast. An absolutely disgraceful happening in a large chain like Bella Italia, my complaint was met with indifference and the uncaring offer to 'cook it again' - the tasting of raw wet chicken had made Alice feel physically sick so she declined this, instead accepting the free dessert she was offered with a hope of avoiding salmonella.
David fared no better, although the meal he was served was at least adequately cooked. I'd picked a pasta in cheese sauce for him as he's a fan of this type of dish, it looked awful though and despite the fact David has a huge appetite he ate barely half of the very small meal. I tasted a mouthful and found the pasta to be overcooked and the sauce tasteless, the kiddies are definitely being fobbed off with inferior food in this place - I was disgusted at the quality of this meal to be honest and would have kicked up a stink a) if I hadn't been with my rather shy mother and b) if David's meal hadn't been free in the first place. As it was he shared my pizza and ate his fill of tomatoey spaghetti off mums plate so he didn't go hungry...! It wasn't until we were on our way home that we realised he hadn't been served his dessert - an absolute shambles and a blatant nod to the fact that this particular branch of Bella Italia don't seem terribly welcoming to the smaller diners.
My dessert was disappointing, I'd ordered the Cookie Dough Lava Cake as the description of an oversized moist cookie with hot chocolate sauce inside appealed to the pig in me - unfortunately it wasn't even edible as the cookie was ridiculously hard and crunchy, not in a good way either! The chocolate 'lava' was equally disappointing, being more of a soft but still solid lump of chocolate - deliciously sweet and creamy, but not sauce by any stretch of the imagination. It was an incredibly rich dessert and in retrospect I'm glad I was only able to eat half as I think I'd have been stuffed to the point of sickness if I'd eaten it all! Mum ate Torta Limone which looked wonderfully light and summery, but apparently was quite rich and very sweet - mum was impressed with the lemony tang but said the addition of cream overwhelmed it somewhat so she used only a tiny amount of the cream she'd been given in the jug. Alice finally had a meal she enjoyed, choosing a deliciously chocolatey Godfather sundae which looked richer (and sicklier!) than any dessert I've ever seen before and was topped with a delicate vanilla cream.
I rounded my meal off with a Macchiato coffee which was nice but served in the tiniest of espresso cups, my own fault I suppose for ordering something I'm not sure about but I was expecting at least a normal sized mugs worth! It was a delicious coffee and perfectly made, unfortunately I found myself in Starbucks half an hour after leaving Bella Italia as I needed a rather larger coffee hit!
~x~x~x~ Service With A Smile? ~x~x~x~
Well, in all honesty I didn't think any of the staff in this branch stood out as bending over backwards to ensure we enjoyed our meal. One waitress (a bonafide Italian no less!) was highly efficient, always busy and seemed incredibly helpful - unfortunately she wasn't our waitress otherwise our dining experience may have been more pleasant! I must admit our waiter was friendly and l was happy with the way our order was taken and processed, I can't really fault his professionalism at all but he seemed to have no clue what to do when I directed our various complaints to him. Although saying that, even when these were referred to the manager I wasn't impressed by the outcome and ended up contacting the Bella Italia head office when I returned home and only then did I receive a satisfactory outcome.
Everyone just seemed like they couldn't care less to be honest, if we asked for anything 'extra' we were (I'm sure) looked on as nuisances. Even when I was angry at Alice being given raw chicken I felt I wasn't being taken seriously, shockingly I was made to pay for this meal as she'd eaten the fries and a portion of the burger (a few small bites before coming to the raw part) - I was surprised and highly annoyed at this, although had already decided I was going to take my complaint higher than the branch so paid it without (too much) argument. The free £5 dessert in my opinion was an insult, I had expected the appalling meal to be wiped from the bill at least - and salt was rubbed into the wound when I arrived home and realised I had also been charged for the pasta component of David's meal, which should have been free.
For me it was the small thoughtless acts; putting us at inappropriate tables, placing a hot dish where my young son could have grabbed it, not clearing all dirty crockery from the table between courses so that I had to take it back myself. I just felt as though my custom wasn't valued.
~x~x~x~ A Tale Of Two Meals ~x~x~x~
I know I should advise anyone reading to never visit this branch of Bella Italia as our experience wasn't great, but to be fair I was impressed with some of the food so can't be too vicious in my criticism. Obviously the raw chicken is unforgivable bearing in mind the health issues which can occur through eating undercooked poultry, but presumably (and so I was told in the apologetic email from Bella Italia) this isn't something that happens with too much regularity. I'd like to see the staff improve on their people skills and would also recommend you check your bill thoroughly before paying to ensure you've been charged correctly, the place needs a good tidy up in my opinion as even the small corridor next to the toilets was packed with rolls of disposable towels which hadn't been put away - and that was after I'd moved a chair which was blocking the ladies toilet doorway and had been walked past by at least three members of staff. I reiterate - pure thoughtlessness.
Speaking of the toilets, they weren't too bad. A little shabby maybe and in need of a lick of paint, but generally clean and adequately maintained with loo roll in plentiful supply and good clean hand-washing facilities. I didn't spot any baby changing areas and when I asked (not because David needed changing but because I was curious!) I was told she'd get back to me - and she never did! As a disabled diner mum was impressed by the ease of getting around, everything is on one level with no steps or stairs inside - a roomy disabled bathroom is available and mum reported that it was clean and tidy with a nice smell; I did a smile-slash-grimace when she mentioned the boxes stacked in one corner of the room, it just felt in keeping with the general air of neglect in the restaurant.
Our meal came to £62, of which I received £30 back as a Bella Italia voucher. I'd have preferred a cash refund if I'm honest as I don't particularly want to eat in this restaurant again, although I've kept the voucher for another time when I can maybe find another branch - somewhere where I'm not going to be stressing about being served raw food.