Belleria opens in West ClayCarmel's newest Italian restaurant lies at the heart of the Village of West Clay, a vast, open-air temple to the almighty greenback. Approaching down an avenue of million-dollar homes, one is eventually greeted by an enormous space bounded by featureless apartment buildings that look as if they had been designed by Le Corbusier on Valium. At the center of this stark, unadorned austerity sits a cluster of shops, including a town-hall like edifice, a bank and a new restaurant, Belleria.

Belleria's Executive Chef Artie Stevens presents a breast of chicken dish.

Belleria disappoints because it does not offer up the kind of fare that I was anticipating from a tony joint in the middle of arguably the richest neighborhood in town. Yet I am not at all surprised by the direction it takes. The idea of a planned neighborhood such as West Clay is to provide an insulated environment where the inhabitants can easily access all the creature comforts that life affords without having to get into a car.

I would therefore (somewhat selfishly, I admit) anticipate that the first restaurant catering to such a community would be a somewhat upscale effort, offering sound (or even somewhat elevated) cuisine at reasonable prices. Even though it is independently-owned, the menu is chain-like and largely uninspired. Simply put, when I entered Belleria, I was hoping for an experience akin to Tavola di Tosa; when I left, I felt more as if I had just dined at an upscale Olive Garden.

From the outside, Belleria is all business, with a quaint little garden area, complete with benches, and a mock-Georgian faÁade. Inside, the restaurant is centered around a large lobby, with small dining rooms radiating from the middle. A circular bench in the center provides a space for waiting diners to congregate, as does a bar off to the side.

On our recent visit, my friend and I were under the impression that our dining room was something of an afterthought, so close were we to the hostess stand and the central waiting area. The dining rooms seemed cramped and the tables too close to each other for comfort. This not only ensures eavesdropping all around, but forces the servers to stretch over tables and pass dishes down from one diner to the next. This setup is unfortunate, but inevitable under the circumstances.

As for the food, the quality is variable. To start our meal, my friend and I ordered the smelts ($6.95) and the parmesan spinach and artichoke dip ($7.95). The former had been breaded and deep-fried to a crisp texture. The marinara dipping sauce, proclaimed on the menu as house-made, bore an uncanny resemblance to store-bought product in a sweet and not particularly tomato-ish kind of way. The dip was far more satisfactory, although the homemade "Italian fries" turned out to be deep fried lengths of pizza dough. An interesting twist on an old classic, I'm sure, but we both felt that some good old freshly baked bread would have sufficed.

All entrees at Belleria are served with a salad and a side, further enhancing the restaurant's value for money. Our salads were a highlight, being fresh, crisp and evidently recently-prepared. For our main courses, we chose the veal marsala ($12.95) and the chicken parmesan ($12.95). The former consisted of two thin scallopini, breaded and fried and served in a marsala sauce. This was a perfectly agreeable dish, good value, but the veal was on the tough side and the sauce not particularly exciting.

What was moderately exciting, however, was the side dish of cavatelli alfredo. These perfectly al-dente, mussel-shaped pieces of pasta hold an admirable amount of sauce and were very tasty indeed.

As for the chicken, well, I can report that scientists have finally figured out how to breed all the flavor out of this feathered favorite. Not that this is the restaurant's fault of course, but here again is the crux of my gripe: Why not spend just a little more on decent ingredients, and charge the customer a bit more?

As for dessert, our choice of tiramisu was not a well-informed one, as it was clearly commercially produced and bore almost no resemblance to the real thing. The wine list, offering a number of good selections from Carroll Company, provided excellent drinking at very reasonable prices. Of this I heartily approve. A short list of after-dinner drinks rounds things out nicely.

If you live in the neighborhood, Belleria is surely a great asset: It's inexpensive, kid-friendly and a short walk. If not, it"s rather a long way from anywhere, and I wouldn't really recommend it as a destination. Which is a shame, because this town could use another high-class Italian eatery, and what better location for it than the Village of West Clay?

Hear each Friday morning at 9 on WXNT-AM, 1430.

Belleria12819 E. New Market St., Village of West Clay Carmel 844-6558 Sunday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.  Food : 2 1/2 stars Atmosphere : 2 1/2 stars Service : 3 stars

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