paying homage to a Raleigh favorite

It’s easy (and fun) to become enamored by new chefs, restaurants, and cocktail lounges that pop up, and our city is a better place because of them.  But today, I want to recognize an original in Raleigh–one that easily fits within the group of finest food and drink in the Triangle.  This is a neighborhood restaurant that has been consistently rated best Italian in Raleigh for over a decade.  The owners didn’t spent a dime on advertising or PR for this restaurant; this place has flourished throughout the years solely from word of mouth.  In fact, the restaurant doesn’t even have signage except for a humble mention of “pizza” on top of the building.  Its one of those delightfully unsuspecting gems found tucked inside a shopping center.  The nonstop bustle of the restaurant speaks for itself: it is simply the best Italian food around here. This restaurant is Bella Monica.

I love supporting, and writing about, places that have as much heart as Bella Monica.  This place is totally a labor of love that opened its doors in 2000.  The Monica family hails from New York and settled in Raleigh in 1999 to follow Chef Corbett Monica’s dream: to open his own restaurant that allows anyone to come and enjoy his beloved Nana’s recipes the way he and his family did growing up.  That’s really what this restaurant is about, IMO: family and the food that brings them together.  Bella Monica’s immense success is a story of dedication, hard work, and passion.  When you put those things together, there’s really nothing that can stop you, is there?  And let’s face it…  Italians rarely fall short when it comes to passion. 🙂

When Chef Corbett opened this little neighborhood trattoria 18 years ago, he spent tireless days and nights in the kitchen recreating his grandmother’s famous Italian marinara sauce, known as “Gravy”.  Most Northerners will recognize this term, while Southerners may confuse it for a roux-based sauce that goes on your mashed potatoes.  Don’t be confused.  This gravy is made from San Marzano tomatoes, and a load of fresh ingredients that are probably not revealed.  I have never asked Corbett to reveal the recipe because 1) I assume it is a family secret since it came from his Italian grandmother originating from the Old Country 2) I know how labor intensive it is to make and I probably wouldn’t stand in front of the stove for that long and 3) I can always get it at Bella Monica so I don’t need the recipe. Anyway, this stuff is liquid gold.  Do you remember the old cartoon with the St. Bernard depicted with a tiny barrel around her neck trekking the Great St. Bernard Pass (which is a real ridge high in the Alps between Italy and Switzerland) and encountering unconscious travelers who had succumbed to the elements while getting lost or injured? These rescue dogs would lean over the unconscious traveler and dispense brandy in their mouth to revive them long enough to get them to safety. The cartoon embellishes that rescue in a humorous way in which the traveler rises up from the snow in a slow state of euphoria.  I like to think that Nana’s Gravy in the little brandy barrel would revive the trekkers in the same way. Here’s a funny clip of a St. Bernard making himself a martini after rescuing Yosemite Sam from a self inflicted avalanche  OK, I digress but you guys get the point.  Nana’s Gravy saves lives.  Let’s get back to the early days of Bella Monica.  Corbett’s stunning wife, Julie, had completed an academic career in psychology prior to the launch of Bella Monica, and she was a social worker in the Raleigh area during Bella’s infancy.  As their business grew, she quit her job and focused full time on the front of the house at Bella Monica.  In fact, the restaurant is named after her.  Bella translates to beautiful in Italian.  I can just picture them now.  Corbett grinding out homemade pasta dishes and pizzas in the kitchen, and Julie charming the guests in the dining room.  This is how they got their start!  Lots of elbow grease and passion. When I stumbled on this place in 2010, I had recently moved back to NC to finish my undergrad and recreate my life after a wild stint in Southern California with my rock star (former) fiance. I was looking for a job that would work well with my full-time academic schedule, and Bella was a perfect fit.  I worked here for the next two years until I graduated.  During this time, I made some of the best friends who I hold so dearly to my heart, including Corbett and Julie Monica.  They have become family.  I also learned a ton about Italian wine.  Bella Monica boasts the largest curated Italian wine selection of any restaurant in the Triangle.  Italian food needs to be enjoyed with Italian wine, and they have been carefully curating a collection for years that the public can enjoy.  I am a serious wine snob, and love Old World wines. Especially Right Bank Bordeaux and La Rioja, but Italian wine is in a class of its own, in my opinion.  There are over 800 grape varietals used for wine making in Italy.  Sangiovese and Nebbiolo grapes make up my personal favorite Italian wines, from Brunello di Montalcino to my beloved favorites from the Piedmonte, which are made from Nebbiolo (Barolos, Barbarescos, etc).  They are elegant and seductive on the palate, red cherry being the distinct marker of Italian red wines, and most of them are graceful enough to drink by themselves, yet they also have the structure to stand up to just about any food.  If you want to tell me that you love me, you can do so without words.  Let a bottle of Brunello or Barolo do the talking.

OK, back to the gravy.  It’s the brightest and most flavorful tomato sauce I have ever tasted.  You really don’t even need to put it on anything.  Just sip it like soup!  I’ve done that many times, shamelessly. The effort that is consistently put forth to keep this huge pot of sauce flowing over the past 18 years ensures the integrity is never compromised.  It is really the foundation of all the traditional recipes on the menu and is the hallmark of Southern Italy’s cuisine.  My favorite dish that features this sauce is the eggplant rollatine.  There are some dishes you will hear me refer to as “life-changing experiences”.  The eggplant rollatine is one of them.  The dish is made of eggplant thinly sliced the long way, breaded, stuffed with Italian cheeses, with gravy and mozzarella baked on top, and finished with fresh basil.  I could eat this dish for breakfast, I could eat it for dinner, I could eat it every day and never get sick of it.  They only serve it on the weekends at Bella Monica, and it’s not on the menu so you have to ask for it.  Confession: when I dined there on Friday night, I forgot to take photos of most of the food so I had to pull some off of the internet that other guests had taken.  You can take this as an indicator that the food is just that yummy.  I forgot to take pics for my blog! haha.  Some of my other favorite dishes at Bella are the crab flatbread and the mushroom leek crema mussels. That lasagna, though… I don’t have any words for the lasagna.  You just will have to order it for yourself.  Do not expect to want to do anything afterwards but take a nap, though. 🙂 Sophia Loren once said, “I’d much rather eat pasta and drink wine than be a size 0,”  Girlfriend, I feel you.

The crab flatbread is something that is so unique, you just can’t find anything like it anywhere else.  If I recall correctly, the story goes that our dear late friend, Chris Connelly, and Corbett were making a crabcake recipe.  They thought it didn’t quite turn out as they expected, but rather than wasting it, they put it on one of their homemade flatbread crusts with pesto sauce as the base, added calamata olives, roasted red peppers, cheese, cooked it like a pizza, then sliced it into squares and and served it with a dijon aioli for dipping.  Absolutely BRILLIANT!!  A star was born in the crab flatbread and it has been an appetizer on the menu ever since.  I don’t make a trip to Bella without getting the crab flatbread.  This past time I had the calamari and shrimp pasta.  It is made with squid ink linguini, Calabrese sausage, and roasted red pepper crema.  I like this dish spicy so I added crushed red pepper to it.  Amazing.  I remember when Corbett created this dish as a special years ago, and I was happy to see it found a permanent place on the menu.  The great thing about Italian food is often its simplicity.  If you go to Italy, you quickly begin to notice that most dishes are incredibly simple, yet amazing.  The secret is the ingredients have to be fresh.  Corbett upholds that standard beautifully.

I was joined by a few of my cousins this past trip to Bella.  We all grew up along the coast in Carteret County, but many of us have ended up in Raleigh for education and careers. We try to get together every other month or so and we chose Bella Monica this time. Italian food is best enjoyed with people you love, at a leisurely pace, with Italian wine.  I will also note that you won’t get a cannoli this authentic anywhere in Raleigh. If you haven’t been to this place yet, make a reservation on OpenTable and go see why it has consistently been voted as Best Italian in the Indy year after year, as well as a host of other awards the Monica family has received throughout the years for their dedication to their craft, and the refusal to compromise the integrity of authentic Italian food.  Bella Monica also has a catering service.  This past year, the Monica family also opened their second restaurant which is located in Cary.  Stellino’s Italiano, named after their daughter, Stella, stays true to Nana’s recipes and also features a cocktail bar.  Go check it out and Vivi, Ama, Mangia!  Live, love, and eat!  Thank you, Corbett and Julie (pictured below), for sharing your family’s magic with the rest of us here in the Triangle!

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