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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Bella Di Notte Is Back!

Update: March 2013 – Opening hours – 11:30-22:00 (break from 15:00-17:00)

By Ross Leader,  Photos by Jason Teale

I almost choked on a mouthful of tagliatelle when I heard the news; Ray, the purveyor of undoubtedly the finest Italian cuisine in Ulsan, had just told us that he was soon to shut up shop and relocate.  Guyeong-li was not funnelling custom, and he had set his sights on new premises in an obscure place called Weolsung, somewhere near Gyeongju.

The Entrance

He had only recently opened his revolutionary venture in the spring of 2011, and so my immediate fear was that my real cheese fix (rapidly becoming a habit) would be cruelly replaced so soon with a methadone-like sliver of plastic-wrapped plastic.  I would be too lazy to make the trip all that way solely to sate my need for the kind of pizza and pasta I’m used to back home.  A fear shared by my fellow gorgers.

That was almost six months ago.  Six long months of Pasta Buono, and a trial of a couple of other ‘Italian’ restaurants which… well, you know.  The neon might spell ‘e-talian’, given that the knowledge and experience of even the head chefs seemingly results in nothing better than a bastardisation based on a gleaning of photos and ingredients uploaded thousands of miles away.  It detracts from the experience of dining out when at the forefront of your mind you know that much better is possible – sadly, was possible – and step through the door with a face of grim resignation.  Since then, there had been not a blip of news from Ray.

Bella Di Notte

I am now coming down from my first tastebud-high in a long while.

Last weekend I read a headline that Ray had just re-opened; fantastic news.  I then had to check myself before accepting the reality of the finest morsel of information: the renaissance of Bella Di Notte… in Samsan-dong.  (What happened with vanishing into obscurity in the wastelands?).  In junkie-like haste, within 24 hours I was sat at a table.

Tucked away in the backstreets between Hyundai Department Store and Trevi Brauhaus, Bella Di Notte unassumingly assumes its rightful throne as queen of Italy in Ulsan.  Coming from Hyundai, it was only by chance that I noticed the small sign in Hangeul; perhaps the property rental prices were at such a premium that Ray could only afford a pokey place.  Passing the sign and turning to face the entrance on the corner, I was shocked; a striking black two-story façade containing nothing other than the familiar signage and a double doorway leading to stairs.  With my partner in pasta, I took the stairs to the second floor.  Life in Ulsan was surely not to be the same again.

At this point I should introduce this fabled Ray to those who have not met him.  He is a young, fun, ear-pierced Korean guy, with a passion for pleasuring others.  He studied Italian cuisine under a world champion tosser of Napoli pizzas.  He has taught himself conversational English over the years, and armed with that is a courteous and enthusiastic (though not overbearing) host to his foreign customers.  His chefs are similarly well-trained (the second-in-command, Pietro, studied under Gordon Ramsay’s second-in-command), and when not busy all are concerned to present to you with pride their creations.

A taste of Italy

So, by what fortune did Bella Di Notte grace Samsan-dong?  According to Ray, a great deal had been setup with the owners of the intended premises in Weolsung, and all was set for a December launch.  However, they gave him the run-around several times on access date, and so he ditched the deal in favour of (what will surely prove the most lucrative location) Samsan.  (Sometimes – sometimes – the inefficiencies do produce results!)

We were warmly greeted by Ray, and a couple of other familiar faces.  In addition to the original trio of chefs, there were another two, along with two wait staff (which had been notably absent from Bella Di Notte v.1.0).  Surprise number two: he had increased his workforce.  Our attention was quickly stolen to the surroundings and we found surprise number three: the scale of the place.  The chief characteristic of the original restaurant was its small size; a narrow converted shop, with seating for around a dozen customers.  Here, there are at least a dozen tables.

Atmospheric

We were presented with the menu and sat in awe as we browsed the exhaustive forty-item masterpiece; you will not be left wanting for choice.  The menu is perhaps the most extensive I have seen in Ulsan, if not Korea.  I managed to finish dancing my eyes over the names of fifteen pizzas before my mind turned once again to the surroundings.  I left my seat and toured the restaurant.  Unlike the failed attempts of his lesser peers to emulate a rustic Mediterranean feel, Ray has opted for style and detail.  Refreshing surprises await, so I will not spoil it for you, save to say that understated elegance with tasteful and crisp detail provides a new benchmark for a true Western-orientated dining experience in our area.  Further, the layout, colours and materials used add a warmth and cosiness you would want to envelop you during a hearty feast.

Thankfully, we were not presented with an Italiano-Han kimchi fusion to accompany our orders.  Instead, we were delighted with a novel pot of whole balsamic onions (though admittedly, alongside another pot of the ubiquitous sliced pickle and radish), and tantalised by a serving of bread to dip in oil with balsamic vinegar.

As we were served our two pizza choices (the diavola, sublime, and a well-calibrated calabreze), Ray was keen to inform us that he no longer used Korean flour, and though at triple the cost (but not affecting his already-reasonable prices, I would add), was now using imported Italian flour for the pizza bases.  Different from any other pizza I’ve eaten in Korea, the base was crisp on the outside yet had texture and retained some chew inside.  Light, and not the typical crumbly bread biscuit.

Pizza Pollo

We were then given our order from the (often sorely-missed) side menu, a bowl of thick melanzane, cooked with real tomatoes.  After devouring this, and with little pizza left, we waited for our special pasta dish.  Whilst waiting, Ray asked us to try a sample from his antipasto selection; insalata di maiale is a thick slice of gorgeous pork belly, which has been slow-boiled in a sauce for four hours.  Perfectly prepared, it was the most tender pork I’ve ever had melt in my mouth, and delicious, too.

The tagliatelle di salmone e capperi arrived.  A healthy serving of pasta supported unusually numerous capers and gloriously baked chunks of salmon in a nice soaking of cream and, interestingly, vodka.  It is recommended.

Just as we thought we could fit no more in, Ray’s colleague gave us a freshly made and off-menu tiramisu, the soaked biscotti rich and full of real flavour.  We hope that Ray will have the tiramisu as a regular special in addition to the panna cotta, mascarpone cheesecake and gelato.

Carbonara-Superiore

The name of the draft beer (European) begins with an ‘H’ and is thankfully not Hite, and there are a further seven bottled beers.  There is one white wine (Bernini) sold by the miniature bottle.  Though other wines did not appear on the menu, and a wine list was not provided, there was a well-stocked wine cabinet on display.  Perhaps Ray will please many of us by going against the flow and offer wine by the glass in the future.

Speaking of the future, Ray is keen to reintroduce the famous all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink, evening parties that some of you will hazily remember for their abundance of great food, beer, and fun.  Hopefully, the first one will be held by April, and regularly thereafter.  Ray is looking to setup a Facebook page to keep us all updated with foreigner-friendly offers and party news, so look out for that in the coming weeks!

The prices are reasonable – around 15,000 won for a main course – and there is even a reduced price lunchtime menu.  This palace of pizza is open midday to midnight (with a deserved break 3-5pm).  You can find Bella Di Notte on our drinking and dining map, or by crossing Samsan-ro from Hyundai Department Store, turning left at Baskin Robbins, heading towards the Lotte Hotel, but then taking the first turning on your right.  It is on the left corner, about 30m down the street.

Relieved from the disappointments from Koreanised Italian cuisine, I assure that you will be impressed with both the food and venue.  Perhaps the last time I ate with a gleeful smile on my face was as a child.

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