BUSAN, South Korea — Let’s start with a quote. “…it is rare to find good Italian on this here peninsula. If you want good Italian, you’re going to have to make it yourself.” Yup, I did just quote myself, from my article in the most recent issue of Haps. I handed in that article just days before my first visit to Bella Citta. So now here I am, humbled before you, my lovely readers, to say I stand corrected.
I’ve often complained to my cohorts about how, with most restaurants here in Busan, it’s an either/or thing. Either the food is good and the atmosphere is off, or the atmosphere is wonderful and the food doesn’t live up. I’m sorry – but no matter how appetizing the food is, or how beautifully it is presented, if I am forced to eat it at a white formica table under fluorescent lights, I am not going to enjoy it as much. I’m more inclined to delight in a meal in beautiful surroundings – even if the food is meh.
When Bella Citta’s manager, Mr. Woo, led me into the back garden, I thought, ‘now here’s a place where I’d settle for mediocre food.’ It’s that beautiful. Between the rustic wooden furniture, the art deco ironwork and the ample amount of greenery, I almost felt as if I had been transported. Not to a different time or place, but to an alternate reality, where maybe if I squinted hard enough, I’d spot a fairy or two flitting around in the corner.
It’s no wonder that the space is so artfully designed, as owner Lee Hae Jin’s long history as an art enthusiast is what compelled her to visit Italy in the first place. After several visits there, she established Bella Festa, a high end course menu restaurant and art gallery, just behind where Bella Citta now stands. This was ten years ago, a time when that part of Gwangan wasn’t really developed, so it was one of those places you just had to ‘know’ about. As the years pressed on, beachfront high rises sprung up inexorably, all but burying Bella Festa. But a loyal following persisted, and in 2006, Lee opened the first Bella Citta in Haeundae. When the building in front of Bella Festa became available last January, Lee jumped on the opportunity to create a space that would entice the now constant foot traffic on Gwangalli Beach. And chef Jun Joon Hyung jumped on the opportunity to take the reins in the kitchen.
A self-proclaimed country boy, Jun never dreamed that he would become a chef. In fact, the only thing he had cooked until the age of twenty was ramen. When, after an unsatisfying year of university, Jun decided to seek greater things for himself in Seoul, he found it difficult to find work. So when his aunt proposed that if he worked in the kitchen of the Silla Hotel for one year, she would pay his living expenses, it was a no brainer.
Not long after he started working, Jun caught sight of one of the chefs peeling carrots, in that cool way that chefs peel things. He found himself completely mesmerized, and marks this as the moment that set his course. After completing one year of employment, a company perk saw him on a weeklong trip to Italy to take part in a workshop. The Italian chef who had worked with him at The Silla Hotel recognized his potential, and recommended a culinary school in Turino, where he enrolled in 2003. Unfortunately, circumstances didn’t allow Jun to finish the course, so he returned last year to complete his training. While he was there, he toured cheese factories, and introduced one of them to a Korean import company – so next time you buy a hunk of fresh mozzarella at Home Plus, you know who to thank. Fortunately, access to cheese is not the only thing that Jun brought back from Italia.
Bella Citta’s menu is not extensive, nor is it incredibly unique. But a quick peek through the window of the open kitchen was enough to assure me that the menu is ‘right.’ Between the rack of drying handmade pasta and the custom-built brick oven, I settled in for my first meal at Bella Citta with the notion that maybe, just maybe the cuisine would be on par with the ambiance.
After my first course of Caprese Salad – perfectly ripened tomatoes layered with melt-in-you-mouth mozzarella, roasted veggies and fresh basil, I couldn’t wait for what was in store for me. The Pasta Amatriciana (onions and bacon in a spicy tomato sauce) had me wishing for more of the homemade bread to clean the plate with.
As my companions and I vacuumed up the Spaghetti Carbonara, we exchanged comments about how light and subtle it was in comparison to the gazillion other restaurants in Busan that boast this dish on their menus. I was interviewing chef Jun when my pizza arrived – a thin, crisp crust with fresh mozzarella, cracked pepper and a mountain of porcini mushrooms. Needless to say, the interview took twice as long, as my mouth was too preoccupied to ask questions.
Once inside Bella Citta, one is easily taken aback by the sheer size. Along with the spacious patio and indoor seating, part of the charm is getting lost in the art grotto, the varied private dining areas and the overall ambiance.
After dinner, I wandered up to the second floor to discover one of the classiest dining rooms I’ve yet to see, complete with sweeping views of the Gwangalli Bridge. Seating upstairs, I was told, is reserved for those ordering one of the course menus, which run either 50,000 or 70,000 won per person. For customers not looking to break the bank (or propose, which I was told many people do here), the regular menu items are priced reasonably, and an 18,000won three-course lunch set of salad, pasta and homemade gelato is available. For those looking to really ‘do it up,’ there are party spaces available on the second and third floors with a capacity for up to one hundred guests.
I’ve been to Bella Citta twice now. Their only departure from authentic Italian fare is the evening barbecue set, a mix of meats and shellfish, which is 35,000 won and includes two beers or glasses of wine. Though the wine list is limited at present, the staff is in the process of developing an extensive list. I’m looking forward to taking advantage of that wine list. It’s nice to eat proper Italian without getting my apron dirty. And it’s even nicer to dine in the kind of place that makes you want to linger.