The Essence of Italy — Zesty eclectic and traditional dishes marry elegance and authenticity.

Some restaurants serve Italian food and others are Italian restaurants — the difference being one not of simple presentation, but of atmosphere and taste. When you walk into Bellini — Carlo and Marylena Pisano’s signature upscale eatery on El Paseo in Palm Desert — you never question authenticity of this Italian restaurant. If you close your eyes and click your heels twice, you might even think you’ve woken up in midcentury Italy itself, what with the washed yellow walls, the buzz of hearty conversation, and the ever-attentive Pisanos walking from table to table, shaking hands, smiling, and inquiring. “We want people to feel comfortable here,” Carlo says, “like they’re coming to see family.”

After a decade in the desert, the Pisanos have a family of regular customers who have followed them from their original Palms to Pines location to their elegant new location in The Galleria on El Paseo. In Bellini they’ve found a restaurant long on glamour and short on stuffiness, a proposition the Pisanos champion professionally and resemble personally — each maintains an air of lightness and is quick to smile, to pat you on the shoulder, to embrace you warmly.

“A night out should be fun,” Marylena says, “and that means we must do our part.”

The question, of course, becomes the food itself. The Pisanos have succeeded in creating a menu with traditional and eclectic dishes that span the length of Italy, course to course: One can opt for a traditional bruschetta appetizer, but the truly adventurous will veer toward the Scamorza Alla Napolitana, a grilled smoked mozzarella cheese served with cherry tomatoes, garlic, and kalamata olives over a bed of baby spinach drizzled with white truffle oil. A plate full of steaming Pasta Al Pomodoro proves rich and significant, though the sure of taste will scroll down the menu to the Lobster Ravioli Cardinale, which comes bathed in a lobster cognac cream sauce.

It is the house specialty, veal — prepared in seven different entrée variations — that is the foundation on which Bellini has earned its reputation. One can get veal scaloppine at any restaurant that serves Italian food, naturally, but Bellini goes a step further, offering items such as Veal Tenderloin Al Vincotto Di Puglia, replete with fresh portobello mushrooms and vincotto sauce, and Veal Chop Milanese, a breaded chop served with a garnish of fresh vegetables.

With pasta beginning at $16 and entrées starting at $21, Bellini has a conservatively priced menu for the location and, judging by overflow weekend crowds, the Pisanos have found a solid middle ground between cultivating a family atmosphere and providing an enticing spot for an evening of romance. It’s a tenuous balance — or, it would seem to be — until you see Carlo and Marylena walking arm-in-arm through their dining room, the chaos of the evening slowing around them, and it all seems perfectly within reason.

Bellini, 73-111 El Paseo (at The Galleria), Palm Desert, 341-2626

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