I have eaten in Little Italy before, one time last summer when my sister and my friend E___ came to visit me. We chose our restaurant by the walk-down-the-street-and-scan-menus method, and we enjoyed a fabulous meal, so performing this same blind search for a restaurant down Mulberry street a second time did not seem especially risky. This was Little Italy—everything had to be good.
Much to our surprise, the first place to accost us with a menu was also able to seat our party of six at its outdoor "patio" (i.e. sidewalk space), so we grabbed the available seating and settled down to look over the vast menu. Everything on it looked as good as every other place down the street....
My first clue that this restaurant wasn't as good as "every other place" should have been the seating itself: the chairs were plastic lawn chairs, the kind you can buy at Wal-Mart and that have to be thrown out at the end of every season because their white surfaces end up turning mysteriously and un-clean-ably gray. You get what you pay for with these chairs; they are very unsturdy and very uncomfortable. Consequently, no restaurant that values its customers' dining experience would put them through that kind of discomfort.
Unfortuantely, I missed sign #1 because we were all so eager to simply sit down. Sign #2 also went unnoticed, at least until any food was served: the napkins. I understand that cloth napkins are typically reserved for restaurants serving appetizers that cost as much as this place's entre dishes, but I have encountered a variety of paper versions, and some are much better than others. These napkins were thinner than the toilet paper we had in college! One speck of water or oil, and the whole thing would likely disintegrate uselessly right there on my lap. But, of course, nothing had been served yet, so I didn't notice this sign, either.
The growing realization of how poor this restaurant really was arrived along with the complimentary bread. Sign #3: it was bad. One of the two miniature loaves was as hard as a rock, and the loaves were served not with a saucer of fragrant dipping oil, but with small plastic packets of butter--the kind with the golden peel-back foil tops that you would find at a cheap diner.
And then we received our food. Or, actually, everyone at the table received their food except for me. I had ordered bruschetta and minstrone soup--two of my favorite Italian dishes--and when the waiter came out with our meals, he informed me that the restaurant had run out of minstrone soup. Now, I understand a restaurant running out of a popular food item; this phenomenon is not unheard-of. However, the fact that the waiter had waited until he served our meals to inform me there was no soup (when, if I had known earlier, I would have completely changed my order) was truly unacceptable. As a result, I had to settle for their house soup, Pasta Fagioli, which, while it certainly wasn't bad, was not what I had wanted at all.
Unfortunately, no one else was pleased with the food they had ordered, either. W___'s lasagna tasted "weird." A___'s vegetable angel hair was bland. E___'s chicken was dry. And my bruschetta was nothing to get terriblyl excited over. All-in-all, it was definitely not a $25 experience.
Thus, the moral of the story is: if you plan to eat in Little Italy, bypass Casa Bella. And try to check out the chairs and the napkins before you sit down. It may save your dining experience.