After trying my hand at a variety of part-time jobs that suited the needs of the varying schedule of an undergraduate college student, I finally found the perfect match in a tiny Italian restaurant in western Forth Worth. Bella Italia West probably holds 60 people max and operates with a trim staff serving a clientele of regulars who ranged from an 80+ year old couple eating plain fish at the bar nightly to some of the most well-known families in Fort Worth. Chef Carlo, or Chef, as he prefers to be referenced, oversees the kitchen and the dining room. He particularly enjoys guiding guests through his two prides and joy – a menu of rustic Italian dishes highlighting the wild game he loves to hunt during sojourns to Argentina and an equally deliberate wine list covering Italian and Argentinan wines from your (now) standard $20 Malbecs to $500+ premium Gaja Barolos. Included in these top-tier wines was a fabled multi-thousand dollar bottle (4? 10? The actual price always changed) that Chef had owned two of and split with his wife in the divorce. I never saw where in the locked wine cellar this bottle stayed tucked away but I don’t doubt it was there.
At the time, wine held a burgeoning appeal to me thanks to my parents’ trips to Napa when I was younger (and if I recall correctly, a case of Silver Oak that also had to be split when they divorced), but I was mainly exploring wine based on which boxed version seemed the most fancy and which bottle was the prettiest. My nights working ranged from downright dull to slammed with clientele that could have walked in because the casual TexMex joint down the street was full or their private jet dropped them off hours earlier and they were craving Chef’s signature buffalo steak. The constantly changing scene gave me the opportunity to see who was drinking what and why, what Chef was recommending with each dish and which of those vintages Chef would uncork at the end of the night so we could have our own taste.
A native Italian, Chef’s passion for Argentina bled into his restaurant through more than just incorporating wild game into his menu. Most notably, he had a passion for the now ubiquitous Argentinian varietal – Malbec. What is now an easy go-to when selecting a crowd-pleaser for a group dinner was, at that time, largely unknown to my peer group and my fairly well-versed wine drinking parents — enough for me to develop my own sense of street cred. During my time at the restaurant, Chef also taught me the basics of Italian wines: Barberas are generally not too heavy and fruity; Montepulcianos come in a wide variety but are generally crowd pleasers; how to ID a “super Tuscan” (by the inclusion of Sangiovese). I’m waiting for my editor of this article to tell me I’m totally off, but these concepts are the basics of what gets me through being put on the spot to order wine for a group!
Another easy tip for restaurant ordering I learned is that all you really need to know are the basics of what flavor/grape you’re going for, and then order the cheapest bottle they offer! No need to impress yourself or your date by upping the base price by $5-10; any restaurant worth its salt will highlight a quality wine the owner sees as representative of him/herself with the entry level price point in both the reds and whites. After that, ask your server. He/she should be able to direct you to at least the best sellers. Never be embarrassed to get advice because you want to get more educated.
While gaining some history lessons in the basics has certainly served me well for the decade since working at Bella, the memories that really resonate are the nights I got to taste some of the primo wines. I learned very quickly that expensive wine is not like “other” wine. Bottles over $75 were always decanted, and older bottles required a deft hand in uncorking. Unlike a younger, $15 bottle, a deteriorating cork in a $200 15-year-old bottle Barolo is not necessarily a bad thing. Convincing that to a novice wine drinker who had ordered the bottle simply to impress his date didn’t always pan out. After letting the wine decant, I would occasionally have the bottle rejected and sent back for any variety of reasons: too bitter, tastes old, too oak-y. Fine! Chef was always happy to replace those bottles with a lovely $40 bottle and take the decanter in the back to show his staff what a mature bottle of wine tasted like and why certain flavors stood out more intensely after being properly aged.
Other times, large parties would come in and take over the restaurant, keeping me operating at a frantic pace until the end of the night, when we’d finally get a chance to kick up our feet and enjoy some of the almost-full bottles the parties had left on the table before heading out. Particularly during the Stock Show and Rodeo, regular groups would join us for multiple nights in a row. Let me tell you, if you ever get the chance to dine with a group of Brazilian cowboys, take the opportunity! While Chef normally frowned not so subtly on kids joining in the dining experience, this crowd was welcome to bring their whole family, loudly celebrating a successful stock sale with several varieties of steaks and many bottles of wine. If things had gone really well for them, we could even wind up pulling out a magnum (1.5 liters) or 2, and on a few instances a double magnum bottle, ringing in at an upward of $500/bottle. You’d better believe I stayed until close on those nights to get the chance to try out these legendary bottles. And you know what? There IS a difference. I can tell the basic difference between a $20 bottle and a $100 bottle of wine, but on those rare instances when you get the chance to try a really beautiful wine, a Gaja or Roberto Voerzio, you really know. The equivalent of drinking silk — they just float.
I never waited tables again after I left Bella and moved to New York. I regret not exploring the opportunities more, especially when I was living paycheck to paycheck, but I was convinced I wouldn’t find a place as magical as my time at Bella. Now, I realize that my passion extended far beyond the walls of Bella Italia West, it was really just finding out the construct of a perfect dining experience: ambience, food, wine and, of course, service. Although I spend my time on the other side of the dining room now, I treasure knowing what goes on behind the scenes and being able to participate, at least surface level, in any group conversation about which wine the group should order. And doesn’t that make it all worth it?
Elizabeth Hood resides in Manhattan but enjoys the street cred being from Austin gives her. She lives with her husband, Carson, and dog, Bo. She works for Bloomberg LINK focusing on technology conferences. She is grateful to wine for helping her get through this frigid winter. Find Elizabeth on social media at @evghood.
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