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Friday, Jul. 30, 2010

Bella brings bistro flair to Benton City

BENTON CITY, Wash. -- Your tablemates are almost always a surprise at Bella, an Italian bistro and wine bar in Benton City.

You could be sitting across from tourists drawn to the many wineries in the area, a Hanford scientist, or one of the owners or winemakers who produce the vintages Red Mountain is famous for.

That's because the heart of this tiny restaurant -- it seats just 20 inside with room for about another dozen outside on the lawn -- is a 12-foot table made of 200-year-old barn wood with benches on either side.

"We wanted it to feel homey, like you were dining with your family," said Valerie Brown of Benton City. (There also are several other tables where you can be seated.)

Brown and Tracy Tudor of Grandview are the owners and two of the three workers at Bella, which opened in June 2008. Kayla Coring, their sous-chef, is their only employee.

"Sometimes people don't get the idea of family seating, but pretty soon there's lots of chit chat around that table. They may not have known anyone else in the restaurant when they came in, but they do when they leave," Brown said.

Brown and Tudor both have worked in the wine industry and enjoyed it, but they wanted to get out of the tasting room and do more with pairing food and wine.

Tudor, who says she owns about 2,500 cookbooks, is a self-taught chef.

"My mother was a very good cook and my mother-in-law is too, but she also always wants to make the food look as good as it tastes," Tudor said. "I learned from both of them and by doing."

She uses her cookbooks for inspiration, not recipes.

"When I find a dish I like, I turn it around -- I change the seasonings, add and subtract ingredients -- I make it my own," Tudor said.

"Her recipes are innovative, but not strange. We appeal to more than just foodies," Brown said. "And they're all wine friendly."

Brown -- who is a member of the International Sommelier Guild -- is in charge of the wine list. It's limited -- there are only eight on the menu -- but they always have other featured wines available too.

The wines are "all from the Red Mountain appellation," Brown said. "We feel it's the best viticultural area in the state."

And that's why the upscale bistro and wine bar is in Benton City.

"We believe Benton City is going to become the commercial heart of (Red Mountain), ready or not," Brown said.

The duo specialize in using fresh, seasonal foods, changing the menu four times a year. Salads, even the dressings, are made from scratch, as are all the foods served at Bella.

They specialize in sandwiches, but don't expect to find the usual preservative-laced meats inside.

"Our lunch meats are sliced from the roast," Tudor said.

There's always a daily special featured on the chalkboard, which is "whatever I feel like making. I like to cook in small batches so when it's gone, it's gone," Tudor said.

Every other Wednesday is all-you-can-eat pasta night. Thursdays, twice a month, is "fork tender" tenderloin dinner night. Once a month, by reservation only, they serve a bistro dinner -- seven courses, each with a matching wine.

All their foods can be packed up for takeaway, which makes them perfect for picnicking at wineries.

"We've been told by the wineries they like us here because we keep the tourists in Benton City. They eat here instead of going into Prosser or the Tri-Cities and maybe not coming back," Brown said.

Bella is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday and Tuesday and from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday. It is at 502 Ninth St. (the main street running through town) in Benton City. The phone number is 588-3354; e-mail belladeli@verizon.net.

-- Loretto J. Hulse: 509-582-1513; lhulse@tricityherald.com; more news at www.tricityherald.com