Bella, an Italian restaurant that lives up to the translation of its name, is worth the drive to Blaine.

OUR SERVER WANTED TO MAKE SURE we knew that bella was Italian for “beautiful” and that she intended to make sure we would have a beautiful experience. Then she made good on her promise.

If you live anywhere south of I–694, Blaine might seem like a long way to go for a meal. But Bella, with good Italian food, superlative service, glamorous ambience, and a cool deejay, is worth the drive from just about anywhere in the Twin Cities.

Bella had been open for just three weeks when we stopped in on a Saturday night. The place was packed. Parties without reservations had to cool their heels in the bar for 45 minutes. Fortunately, we had called ahead and were seated immediately in the gorgeous dining room.

The lighting is soft and sexy. Gigantic lampshades loom over curvy banquettes. Everything seems slightly oversized, and the effect is a lovely balance of drama and whimsy.

Appetizers are oversized, too—a fact we discovered after we ordered far more than was wise. The carpaccio had a fresh, clean flavor, and the bruschetta were crunchy but not brittle. The calamari were sweet and toothsome, not the least bit rubbery. Many places do calamari well, but Bella enlivens the standard with a scattering of sweet and hot peppers to lift this guilty pleasure several notches above the ordinary.

The kitchen has a deft way with seafood, as evidenced by the best entrée at our table, a lobster linguini special with faultlessly cooked mussels and clams. We also tried the lasagna Bolognese and the butternut–squash ravioli in butter sauce. Both were delicious, but the pastas were a touch on the dry side. The New York strip was done to perfection, precisely as ordered.

The desserts we tried were agreeably extravagant. The tiramisu was light and luscious, and the crème brûlée was a fine rendition of the classic form. Bella’s lava cake, a chocolate indulgence filled with molten dark chocolate inside, had all the chocolate lovers in our party swooning.

Even the coffee was good. In fact, the only thing at Bella that warrants a “needs improvement” grade is the wine list, which favors safe–bet domestics over more adventurous Italian wines that could really romance the food.

Service is excellent, and not the kind of excellent that makes you wonder if the staff lives in fear of beatings if they aren’t sufficiently obsequious, nor the kind that implies the person doing the serving is more refined than the person paying the check. The wait staff at Bella is prompt, attentive, well–informed, and responsive—the sort of servers who split the dishes you order to share without being asked and without charging extra.

The contrast between Bella and its surroundings is striking. The restaurant anchors a strip mall that could be anywhere in any suburb in the Midwest. Once you cross the eatery’s threshold, however, everything is Italian for “beautiful”—and it’s even more astonishing for being bella in a spot where you’d least expect it.

10950 Club West Parkway