As celebrated chef and cookbook author James Beard once observed, "Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods."
Fortifying that wisdom is a bread basket of area bakeries that turn out great loaves, such as Grateful Bread, Il Fornaio, Sacramento Baking Co. and the Village Bakery in Davis. Some out-of-town bakeries truck their loaves all over the state, including Acme in Berkeley/San Francisco, La Brea in Los Angeles and Truckee Sourdough Co.
Those are all prestigious names. So is Bella Bru, opened by husband and wife Steve and Liz Mishler on April Fool's Day 1993 in a site at Fair Oaks Boulevard and Arden Way.
Since then, Bella Bru has grown to include three cafes, an "express" concept at the Pavilions center and Luna Lounge, adjoining the Carmichael cafe. Catering and wholesaling are big parts of the biz.
Self-taught baker Steve Mishler oversees the bakery side of Bella Bru, which turns out seven types of artisan loaves and two kinds of baguettes daily. The breads show up at some swank places, such as Biba, Lucca and Roxy. The bakery makes the buns that hold the juicy sliders and burgers at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. Bella Bru's long list of pastries, cakes, pies and bagels (26 kinds) are all over town, including at the Sheraton Grand and Embassy Suites.
We dropped by the Natomas-area cafe last week and found an airy room with tall ceilings and arches, Tuscan-style wall treatments, a full bar with counter seating and four TV sets, a cold case stuffed with cakes and pies, and lots of marble, granite and copper throughout.
Lunch items range from $5 to $18, and include pizzas, salads (spinach-strawberry, tri-tip), sandwiches (portobello and tofu melt, blackened mahi), "plates" (veggie stir-fry, grilled salmon) and, of course, desserts.
Off the "starters" list came a plate of crisp, lightly breaded calamari (rings and heads) with julienned and sautéed veggies. "If you're not going to eat that " said one lunch pal, spearing a piece of zucchini, then a piece of bell pepper, then more of both until only the squid remained. But not for long.
Some context: Bolognese sauce originated centuries ago in Bologna, Italy, where to this day its citizens defer to tradition and match their famous ragu with tagliatelle pasta. Wider pasta delivers more sauce per forkful, is the thought.
The spaghetti Bolognese at our table was an OK interpretation. The sauce was coarse with ground beef and pork, and tasted of thyme, basil and oregano. Tragically, the spaghetti was overcooked.
Our best dish was French dip, made with thin slices of roasted cross-rib Angus beef and excellent house-made jus that begins with veal stock and a mirepoix (a combination of diced celery, onion and carrot). We substituted sliced Pugliese bread for the soft roll, lost the caramelized onions and added sautéed mushrooms. Soaked in the jus, the sandwich was delicious.
So was the wedge of sweet 'n' tart lemon cheesecake topped with a dollop of whipped cream. Someone should market that recipe
Hopping here and there on weekends in January led to these top bites and a steak broiled at home:
Asiago, Parmesan and Vermont cheddar join hands with elbow macaroni for mac 'n' cheese at Land Ocean. Topped with breadcrumbs and broiled ($5). Get it at 2720 E. Bidwell St., Folsom; (916) 983-7000, www.landoceanrestaurants. com.
A pasty (PASS-tee) is a meat pie that originated in Cornwall, England. The six kinds at the Pasty Shack are from a local family's recipes dating to the 1940s.
Inside the hand-formed pastry shell of the Bavarian pasty is a mix of gravied ground beef, red and white cabbage, bell pepper, onion and seasoning. Give it a splash of malt vinegar ($6.20). Get it at 4746 J St.; (916) 454-9630.
The spiced and herbed breakfast link sausages, signature muffins and steaming hot chocolate at the five area Mimi's Cafes satisfy that occasional fat-carbs-sugar craving. Try a side of two sausages and three muffins (two to take with you) buttermilk spice, blueberry and carrot-raisin-nut ($12.55 for that thrown-together breakfast; www.mimiscafe.com).
Quietly hiding out in the back of the Corti Bros. Market meat case, and certainly overshadowed by filet mignons and artisanal pork chops, is the market steak.
"It's the first cut from the chuck, next to the rib," said meat department clerk Lacy Engleburt. "It's like eating a little ribeye. They've become very popular, but there are only two per chuck."
Get it at 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 736-3805, www.cortibros.biz ($6.99 a pound for choice, $7.99 for prime).
BELLA BRU CAFE
Where: 4680 Natomas Blvd., Sacramento
Hours: Lunch is 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Breakfast is 7:30-11 a.m. Mondays-Fridays, 7:30 a.m.- 2 p.m. weekends. Dinner is 5-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, till 10 p.m. Fridays; 5-10 p.m. Saturdays, 5-8 p.m. Sundays.
Food: 3 stars (including breads and pastries)
Ambience: 3 stars
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 928-1770, www.bellabrucafe.com
By Allen Pierleoni