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Story & photos: Leslie Huffman
Cary, NC – I had just returned from a trip with my son to New York City where we infused our senses with New York style coal-fired pizza. On the plane home we both discussed how we can never go back to eating pizza at any of the local chains again.
Then, one day later I got an e-mail inviting me to visit Bella Mia, a brand new coal-fired pizza joint, that just opened up at the Arboretum in Cary. Bella Mia means “my beautiful one” in Italian. I salivated at the thought and made plans to visit.
I met with Rick Guerra and his sons Louis and Anthony who were busy making preparations for the day. Two coal-fire ovens glowed in the kitchen while dough was being prepared and fresh vegetables were sliced. Rick came to Cary two years ago. He had visited son Anthony who was attending UNC in Chapel Hill and decided North Carolina was the place to be.
For years, Rick sold wholesale produce in New York and was ready for a change. Louis, a graduate from NYU, received special training in traditional Neapolitan pizza making along with his brother Anthony and opened shop with their father.
“Our goal is to change the perception of pizza in North Carolina,” said Rick Guerra. “Bella Mia is an extension of how we cook at home, and we want our customers to experience true Italian generosity in a casual, friendly and lively atmosphere.”
Before I entered, I was expecting a small place with tables and pictures of Italy on the walls. But what I saw was a sophisticated dinning area with a contemporary open kitchen. The coal-fire ovens were the focal point surrounded by mosaic tile and granite counter tops.
A wonderful feature of the restaurant was the bar that invited guests to hang out and sample the nice selection of wines and beers. Dark woods and warm colors on the walls made for a comfortable but refined atmosphere not typical of a pizza place.
Bella Mia’s coal-burning ovens reach temperatures of 900 degrees, twice as hot as a gas oven, allowing the pizza to cook in less than three minutes with a light, airy crust. Rick imports flour from Italy and fresh mozzarella from Brooklyn and visits the NC farmer’s market four times a week. Meats come from Rare Earth Farms in Zebulon, which raises only grass-fed beef.
Every morning they roast the days market fresh vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions, asparagus, mushrooms, squash and corn. Hand-rolled meatballs and fresh pizza sauce are prepared daily, too.
The Best Part: The Food
With true Italian hospitality, Rick brought out from the kitchen four different salads and roasted chicken wings for me to sample. The salads were all lightly dressed and included ingredients like arugula, cherry tomatoes, cranberries, Asian pears, granny smith apples and walnuts. Cheeses like fresh mozzarella, shaved Parmesan, goat cheese and Gorgonzola were paired with each salad.
The oven-roasted vegetables came out on a large plate filled with different vegetables and all seasoned and roasted to perfection. If you love vegetables, don’t miss ordering these from the menu.
Next came the coal oven roasted chicken wings. No sloppy sauce on these wings. Extra virgin olive oil, salt, rosemary and thyme, roasted and topped with caramelized onions made these wings fly off the bone and fill my mouth with joy.
Then, the pizza. I have three words to describe the pie: simple, fresh and delicious. Louis and Anthony made a Margherita pizza and the Bleeker St. pizza for me to try. The pizza tasted like home-made pizza from Italy.
A thin, and puffy crust with some brick oven blackening, a light touch with the sauce and fresh mozzarella brought me back to Tuscany. This is the way pizza was meant to taste. It is not weighed down with heavy sauce and tons of cheese and toppings. It is a simple pizza, with simple ingredients that bring out each flavor in a fresh and traditional Italian way.
The Bleeker St. pie was made with parmiggiano reggiano, fresh mozzarella, piled with arugula and prosciutto. This was the first time I have had pizza with fresh arugula. It was fantastic with it’s slightly bitter taste against the saltiness of the prosciutto and a light, airy crust.
I am moving in! If you tout yourself as a foodie, and crave fresh ingredients, you should not miss Bella Mia. The prices here are higher than you will find in your average pizza establishment. But, this spot is not average. You will taste a pie that is much different and better quality than you are used to. This pizza has integrity.