Bella Campania, Hillsdale – Chef Tarta’s Labor of Love
Supporting small business is something I strive to do and family-owned restaurants are a category I hold dear. I visited Bella Campania recently in nearby Hillsdale after an absence of a few years. I was pleasantly reminded of what I enjoyed on my earlier visits with husband and kids in tow. While the kitchen was slammed (7PM on a summer Thursday evening) and nearly every table occupied, 30 year old Chef Chris Tarta was keenly focused on not only take out, but warmly greeting customers as they entered and exited while manning the kitchen nearly solo. Tarta is a determined guy, buying Bella Campana at the ripe age of 23 when then-owners planned to sell the restaurant and he was a sous chef.
This BYOB is easy to like, even love. Easy on the wallet, family-friendly and with a laid back vibe, this casual eatery is all about homemade. Tarta resists short-cuts and buying things he could make better himself. Meat is ground daily on premise for meatballs and sausage, tender and flavorful; mozzarella is made fresh each day and delicate pastas are made by hand as well. The homespun quality of the menu extends to the restaurant’s decor, which is paper-topped tables, terra cotta colored walls adorned with an array of framed black and white photos of Tarta’s hands making mozzarella, plated dishes and the like.
Daily specials, reasonably priced, are available seven days. Sign up through Facebook on Bella Campania’s page for news about coupons and discounts, as patrons at the table next to us suggested. They came from Woodcliff Lake and were regulars, visiting weekly for the early bird specials mixing a protein, carb and veggie for about $12.
We split a variety of apps and agreed that this was Bella Campania’s big appeal. While entrees beckoned, we liked the idea of a variety of small plates to experiment with and appease the kids’ (ages 17, 13 and 10) tastes. Margherita Pizza ($16) was delicious. The crust was thin and crispy, but the sauce was what impressed the most. Plump, hand-broken sweet plum tomatoes with a dash of fresh garlic, salt and olive oil made this sauce beautifully balanced. With just enough mozzarella cheese on top to not overpower the delicate tomatoes and a generous sprinkling of fresh basil, this was pizza to love. Antipasto Plate ($10) was laden with prosciutto, smoked peppers, marinated sun dried tomatoes, Tarta’s delicious, perfectly salted, tender mozzarella and a bit of greens.
Our server Joe recommended Fried Calamari ($10) in the Portugese style (as opposed to traditional, Buffalo or Balsamic varieties). This was a winner. The crispy calamari had a fresh, briny flavor and delicate texture underneath a bit of crunch left over by flash frying. Tarta tossed it with a garlicky lemon butter mixture of julienned smoked and sweet peppers and chopped parsley for a flavor-packed mouthful. This was everyone’s hands-down favorite. From texture, taste and addictive quality, Fried Calamari Portugese is a clear winner.
Salads and soups are prepared lovingly and have a homey goodness to them. My daughter loved the Pasta Fagioli ($5) with its simple, honest flavors of tomatoes, garlic and beans.
Bella Campania is just right for a family outing, date night or night out with friends. A bridal shower was being planned at another table, with intentions of renting out the restaurant for a fall afternoon. Because it holds 55, the restaurant can be intimate. In our case, I was happy to strike up conversations on either side of me with other patrons, everyone quite satisfied and dedicated to Tarta. In spite of the bustling atmosphere, there were couples engaged in quiet conversation over bottles of wine at their two tops. A table with four men groaned with beer and hearty portions of pasta, beef, chicken and seafood. Bella Campania’s appeal extends beyond the tasty, well-priced menu items. Visiting makes you feel like you are doing good for a hard-working chef who is doing good for you. And that is worth the trip alone.
Bella Campania, www.bellacampania.com, 456 Broadway, Hillsdale; 201-666-7700, Open 7 Days
Heidi Raker Goldstein is our Bergen county regional editor. A locavore, cooking enthusiast, publicist and mother of three junior gourmands, Heidi is equally comfy in greasy spoons and high-end restaurants. When not visiting local farmers markets and farm stands in Bergen and Rockland counties, this New England native, former Manhattanite and Bergen county resident is busy running her PR and green marketing agency, Raker Goldstein & Co., buying food, planning menus, cooking food, writing about food or simply eating. To reach Heidi, email her at email@example.com.