At $25 a pop, lobster linguine will set you back nearly twice the average cost of an entree at Bellini. Many have found it well worth the price of admission for a showstopper of a dish that stars half a lobster, pan-seared and served in its shell on a bed of homemade pasta tossed in brandy cream sauce. So many, in fact, that lobster linguine has become something of a signature dish at Bellini.
But you won't find it on the menu. You'll have to listen when your waiter recites the weekend specials on Friday and Saturday nights. Depending on the market and the chef's whim, the list might also include grilled branzino with lemon and capers, veal "Michelangelo" (in white wine sauce, topped with shrimp), or osso buco. The one constant is lobster linguine, which is offered every weekend, until the lobsters run out.
That's not to say that lobster linguine is the only attraction at Bellini. A recent weekend special pairing braised lamb shank with saffron risotto and a red wine reduction was every bit as worthy of its $25 tab.
Plenty of pastas
Nor do you have to shell out the big bucks for a rewarding experience. The regular menu at this little Fuquay-Varina strip mall outpost could hold its own with the ristorante competition in Raleigh. Indeed, you'll have a hard time finding anything in the Triangle to match Bellini's selection of homemade pastas.
The noodles in the best-selling lasagne are made in house. So are fettuccine in the Alfredo sauce, the potato gnocchi in the meaty bolognese, and the manicotti that are stuffed with ricotta, parmesan and mozzarella before being baked under a savory patchwork of tomato sauce and more mozzarella.
Scratch-made cavatelli, stubby shells whose ricotta-enriched texture is reminiscent of gnocchi, are so toothsome that you're almost willing to overlook the paucity of the promised prosciutto and peas in the cream sauce.
Fortunately, kitchen miscues are infrequent, and any criticism isn't likely to rise above a quibble. Baked clams and baked mussels are both too heavily breaded for my taste, and dishes are sometimes slightly undersalted. The house mesclun salad that comes with entrees is fresh and the dressings homemade, but the portion can be downright skimpy on occasion. And a $3 upcharge seems a bit steep to substitute a small Caesar - albeit a very good one - for the house salad.
You're not likely to find fault with fried calamari, though, or with eggplant rollatini, which are stuffed with a blend of three cheeses and spinach, and blanketed in homemade tomato sauce and molten mozzarella.
If you're in the mood for spaghetti, don't let the fact that the pasta isn't homemade dissuade you. It's consistently cooked al dente, and available with a variety of sauce options, all made in house: marinara, meat sauce, and pomodoro (fresh tomato with basil), with or without homemade meatballs.
But my favorite dish, of everything I sampled from the menu, is veal marsala. Scoring a double hit with exceptionally tender scaloppine and a classic mushroom-studded brown gravy, it ranks right up there with the lobster linguine and braised lamb shank.
Choosing doesn't get any easier when it comes to ordering dessert. If pressed to choose just one from the more than half a dozen homemade temptations, I'd probably go with the textbook New York-style cheesecake. Or maybe the gooey-centered chocolate soufflé.
Service is friendly, accommodating, and, for the most part, knowledgeable. The two compact dining rooms are warmly welcoming, too, with a casually romantic mood set by burgundy and white linens, soft-focus prints of Italian landscapes, and a cozy bar.
Bellini's wine list is respectable enough, though the unambitious selection of six by-the-glass options fails to live up to the ambitious menu. An expanded offering is in the works.
That the execution of that menu is so solid should come as no surprise, given the background of owner/chef Abel Atauchi. Before opening Bellini in 2010 with his brother and co-chef, Adan, Atauchi already had a resume that stretched back a quarter century, including 22 years in New York.
Judging by the crowds, the Atauchi brothers are a most welcome addition to the local dining scene. Clearly, Fuquay-Varina was hungering for something a little more elegant than a pizzeria.
Not that you can't get a pizza at Bellini. They're popular at lunchtime, and though they're not listed on the dinner menu, they're available outside the prime weekend hours.
But let's face it: If you're driving from Raleigh (and, in case there's any doubt, it's worth the drive), chances are that's just when you'll be arriving.
In that case, plan on getting there early or late, or round up a party of four or more and make reservations.
And rest assured, you won't miss the pizza.