It’s safe, even smart, to assume that any cheese pizza that costs $2 requires a microwave oven and a cast-iron stomach. “Buy cheap, get cheap,” Grandma Mary always taught us. (I think the saying probably sounds a bit more profound in Italian.) But grandma’s famous words – spoken to us in department stores, restaurants as well as in her own kitchen while she rolled meatballs and stirred the sauce with a large wood spoon – still bounce around in my head when any deal seems too good to be true.
But here we are, at Bella Mia Grill in Riviera Dunes, surrounded by a marina filled with boats near the Manatee River and Gulf of Mexico. I don’t know much about boats but many of these look like the kind Thurston Howell probably purchased after finally buying his way off Gilligan's Island; and this gets me thinking. No, not about Ginger or Mary Ann.
I’m thinking about those $2 cheese pizzas. They probably aren’t like the ones I stole from the back of our freezer, after a long night of beer consumption, from my college roommate Darren Rizzo. Maybe this place, Bella Mia Grill on the Water, simply has the best pizza bargain in the Bradenton area. Perhaps, after years and years of research, I’ve ascended to happy hour heaven. It's 5 p.m. on a Friday and I'm ready to find out.
Enjoying my glass of Coastal Vines pinot noir ($4), I declare, to my amazing wife Kristin and probably to at least three other people seated at the bar, that for journalistic reasons we will need to order no less than six of the 10 items on the happy hour menu, items that cost a measly $2 or $5.
“Let’s start with three,” Kristin says, “there won’t even be enough room in front of us for six dishes.”
We get the pizza ($2), the pork and vegetable egg rolls ($5) and the bruschetta ($5). Drinking from an ice-cold bottle of Budweiser ($3) while Kristin sips her $2 draft of Michelob Ultra, we agree that the thin crust pizza, the one for $2, might be the single greatest deal at any bar or restaurant in the state. At the very least, this must be the best bargain at a place with a view of the water.
I’m also pleased with our three egg rolls, which are each about the size of a Rothschild cigar. Kristin, who I can barely hear over the din of my own chewing, rightfully raves about the toasted ciabatta bruschetta covered with shaved parmesan cheese and balsamic reduction.
Full, but far from finished, Kristin and I take a minute to reminisce about when the place was Mangrove Grill and ask our friendly and highly attentive bartenders, Crystal Chanako and Teresa Whitting, if this Bella Mia – “my beautiful,” about the extent of my Italian – is related to the Bella Mia on Manatee Avenue West. Nope, they say, but send over the affable manager Steve Polanski. No, this Bella Mia is not connected to that Bella Mia and in fact this Bella Mia, here in Riviera Dunes, will soon have a new name, Steve says.
“But the happy hour deal won’t change?” I shout frantically.
“No, no, we’re going to keep the happy hour menu,” Steve says.
A sigh of relief.
See, Bella Mia’s happy hour truly is heavenly. For starters, it’s every single day of the week from 2 to 6:30 p.m. That’s four-plus hours of decadent fun on a daily basis. Just imagine how many of those $2 pizzas and priced-to-move beverages you could put away in the time it takes to watch nine episodes of “Gilligan’s Island.”
I have another pressing question for Steve.
“What martini do you recommend?”
“It’s a Bimini martini, my own recipe,” he says. “Malibu Rum, pineapple juice, Chambord, cranberry and a splash of lime juice.”
Teresa mixes it up and that wonderfully sweet beverage called a Bimini martini ($6) pairs excellently with our next round of fabulously fatty, fried stuff. I’m talking fried green beans served with a thick, chipotle dipping sauce ($2), plump cheese sticks with a house-made pomodoro sauce ($5) and a generous serving of chicken wings ($5) we had tossed in medium Buffalo sauce.
Kristin and I share Teresa’s carefully concocted espresso martini ($6), which makes for a delightful dessert.
It’s now 6:45 p.m. and we are beyond satiated, which is a glorious state I recommend for any and all. Plus, I’ve learned a lesson. Don’t judge a pizza by its price. Unless, of course, in the company of Grandma Mary, who is always right, especially when wielding a large, wood spoon.
Bella Mia Grill on the Water, 102 Riviera Dunes Way, Palmetto; 479-7827; bellamiagrill.com.