Caffe Bella
79 South California St.

Oh, the beauty of the hole-in-the-wall. Anyone who’s taken a stroll through downtown Ventura in recent months knows the place doesn’t suffer a lack of feasting opportunities, but even a stretch of city populated by one restaurant after another deserves a refreshing little hole-in-the-wall. Caffe Bella is just such a place.

Situated handily beside the Bella Maggiore Inn and Nona’s Courtyard Cafe, the modest cafe is a surprising little find. The place has also undergone a surprisingly thorough facelift, as I recall having been to the space once before, when it bore a funkier, artsier look.

The spot is still home to only a handful of tables, but Caffe Bella now bears a chic, sleek appearance that in no way detracts from its function as a comfortable nook. When I recently visited the cafe for lunch with a friend, we were the only souls in the place. We took a table near a window looking out onto California Street — a prime people-watching spot indeed.

We perused the menu, which includes simple pleasures such as sandwiches, salads, soups, cheese plates, bruschetta; treats like brownies, biscotti and muffins; cocktails, beer and an extensive wine list.

I selected Bella’s famous chopped salad, which included finely chopped, grilled chicken breast, crumbled bacon, diced tomatoes, gorgonzola cheese and romaine lettuce tossed in a Dijon vinaigrette, while Stephanie chose the chicken salad sandwich on wheat bread and a glass of Beckmen Cuvee Lebec, a red wine from Santa Barbara.

I was surprised by the tanginess of my salad, which was simple and satisfying. The portion was plenty large and all of the ingredients were tossed into a tasty tangle of flavors. The chicken was definitely finely chopped, to the point that it blended with the salad’s other ingredients.

Likewise, Stephanie enjoyed her sandwich, which she described as not being too “mayonnaise-y.” The perfect chicken-salad sandwich, she says, has neither too much nor too little of any accompanying condiment. The bread of the sandwich was slightly toasted, which was a nice contrast to the subtly flavorful filling. Her side of vegetable soup was also well-made and filling. Stephanie particularly enjoyed her glass of Beckmen Cuvee Lebec, which wasn’t too sweet or too bitter, but surprisingly smooth.

Our waiter was kind and helpful and the location, combined with the fact that we were the eatery’s sole diners at the time of our visit, made for an exceedingly peaceful lunch hour. With a laptop and some time on your hands, Caffe Bella could be the perfect place to while away a few hours in peace and quiet.

Then again, it could also be the ideal place to order up a cheese plate and some wine and enjoy the best of what any restaurant has to offer: good times with great friends. n