Restaurant Spotlight: Ciao bella
Bella Monica brings southern Italian tradition to Raleigh
by Christie Hadden
Family has always been the centerpiece for Corbett Monica. His southern Italian family comes from the small town of Avellino in Naples, where red sauce is known as gravy. Growing up in Manhattan, it was tradition for the family to gather around his Nana’s table to break bread on Sundays. With endless food, conversation and laughs, these were fond times for Monica.
When his mother moved to Raleigh 12 years ago, it didn’t take long before Monica followed. He fell in love with the city and knew that he and his wife, Julie, would start a family here. And for Monica, where there’s family there’s food.
In honor of his beloved Nana, the couple opened Bella Monica — a casual neighborhood trattoria with a contemporary spin on her original recipes — in 2000. The eatery is tucked away in the Olde Raleigh Village Shopping Center off of Edwards Mill Road.
Utilizing fresh ingredients from nearby farmers markets, Bella Monica offers a seasonal menu filled with local produce and meat in addition to high-quality Italian products. The stars of the menu include items like baked ziti, portobello and sun-dried tomato lasagna, and eggplant rollatini, which is rolled with mozzarella, ricotta, and asiago, covered with sauce and more cheese, and then baked.
For those making their first trip to Bella Monica, he recommends mixing a Bruschette sampler. “It’s a great way to explore Italian flavors,” Monica says.
Bella Monica takes its Italian wine selection as seriously as it does its food. Barbara Hopkins, the restaurant’s wine director, is responsible for the exclusive Italian wine cellar, which houses 125 labels. With 1,680 bottles in inventory, the restaurant’s philosophy is to invest in strictly Italian wines, then lay them down for five to 10 years to achieve maximum flavor. This philosophy has paid off: Bella Monica won the 2010 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
In response to the increasing awareness of celiac disease — an autoimmune condition that results from eating gluten and other proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye — the Bella Monica team has complied an extensive gluten-free menu including more than 30 items like flatbread pizza and stuffed shells. The kitchen follows the highest gluten-free standards and has been inspected to ensure that no cross-contamination occurs.
These foods have become so popular that the restaurant has created the Bella Monica Flatbread Co. to provide gluten-free products to enjoy at home. Its flatbreads now can be found at Whole Foods and Earth Fare locations stretching from Florida to Maine. Bella Monica also recently hosted a recent 50-person gluten-free wine dinner, with plans for more in the near future.
“Viva, mangia, amore,” translated as “live, love, eat,” is the mantra of Bella Monica. If you’re new to Italian cuisine or simply have a passion for it, then you’re invited to be part of the eatery’s extended family. It would make Nana proud.
Christie Hadden is a world-traveling food fanatic and founder of My Restaurant Guru, a Triangle-based restaurant directory and review site that connects people to the area’s best restaurants. To learn more, visit www.MyRestaurantGuru.com.
Bella Monica Veal Bolognese
(serves six to eight)
1 cup olive oil
1 cup yellow onion, diced
1 cup carrots, peeled and diced
1 cup celery with leaves, diced
3 pounds ground veal
2 cup dry red wine
2 cups Nana Monica’s gravy (see recipe at right)
2 bay leaves
1/2-cup heavy whipping cream
1/2-teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh sage, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup Parmesan Reggiano, grated
Heat olive oil in a large, wide pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, carrots and celery, season lightly with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add ground veal and continue cooking, stirring to break up the meat, until all of the liquid the meat has given off is evaporated and the meat is lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
Add wine to deglaze the pot, scraping the bottom for bits of flavor until the wine has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add tomato sauce and bay leaves and simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Add room-temperature whipping cream, nutmeg and herbs. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Serve over polenta (see recipe below) and garnish with grated Parmesan Reggiano.
(serves six to eight)
4 cups water
1 1/2 cups polenta
3/4-cup Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated
4 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
1 teaspoon each salt and pepper
Bring water to a boil in a medium pot. With a slow, constant stir, add polenta with a whip, being careful to avoid clumping. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 8 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning and sticking.
Add cheese, reduce heat to low and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and add butter. Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm.
Nana Monica’s Gravy
4 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, peeled, with basil (recommended brand: San Marzano DOP)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small whole yellow onion, peeled with ends cut off
1/2-cup fresh garlic, peeled and sliced
6-8 fresh basil leaves
2 teaspoons each salt and pepper
Add olive oil and onion to a large saucepan on medium heat. Cook onion for 5 minutes on each side. Add garlic and cook until slightly golden.
Add tomatoes. Cook for 4 to 6 hours on low heat, stirring frequently, being careful not to burn tomatoes on the bottom. Add basil, salt and pepper to taste. Discard onion after about 2 hours or when it begins to break apart.
If you go
Bella Monica is located at the Olde Raleigh Village Shopping Center at 3121-103 Edwards Mill Road in Raleigh.
The restaurant is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and for dinner from 5-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 5-11 p.m. Friday. On Saturdays, it’s open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
To learn more, call (919) 881-9778 or visit www.bellamonica.com.