Charlottesville’s newest and arguably “only real” Italian restaurant opens its doors in just a few weeks on March 23rd. I recently chatted at the construction site of what is soon to be Bella’s Restaurant with Chefi Austin Robbins, Valeria “Bella” Bisenti, and general manager Justin Heilbrun-Toft. Lucia Sallese, Bella’s mother, also joined us. She doesn’t speak English but gave us all a lesson in pronouncing a la parmigiana. “Mama” as she is affectionately known, is visiting from Rome to train Chef Austin.
Bella, what is the concept of your eponymous restaurant?
There is nothing like Bella’s Restaurant in the current culinary scene here in Charlottesville. For us, it was very important to have something that is really traditional, really authentic. We had the brilliant idea to bring my mom here from Italy to train Chefi in classic Roman cuisine.
In Italy, when you sit down at the kitchen table, it’s the whole atmosphere. We are bringing that here: “Food, Family and Happiness.” We want people to come in, have a feast, not pay a lot for it, and take home some leftovers.
My husband [Douglas Muir], is the real visionary behind Bella’s. We were really inspired by Carmine’s in DC. That was the spike that got me and Douglas to come up with the idea.
Chef, how has your culinary background prepared you for la cucina italiana?
I am a classically trained French chef. I went to Penn Foster Vocational and then the school of hard knocks. I was lucky to really work with some of the greatest chefs like Charlottesville’s own Craig Hartman. My first foray into cooking was the front of house at Applebee’s. I basically brought myself up from there. I never thought I’d be the executive chef of a restaurant like this. I just came from X-Lounge which was a lot of fun.
But, working with Mama was the best training I could ever ask for. It’s been really cool to be in the test kitchen with Mama and take her recipes and adapt them to be able to execute on a larger scale for the restaurant. We all have difference tastes and palates, but Mamie and I are merging our skills. I focus more on the procedures and techniques behind the recipes and enjoy the plating and the fine dining presentation.
So, Justin, how does it feel to open a restaurant in your home town?
Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to have my own restaurant, so this is a dream come true. We are all from here – Chefi and I went to Charlottesville High School together, and Bella has been in the states since she was 21. Charlottesville is home for all of us. It’s our family, and we want to create something to share with our family. When you walk into the door, we want it to feel like you’re walking into your own home.
Chef, what can we expect on the menu?
Pappardelle pasta, homemade meatball and sausages, carbonara, eggplant. We aren’t making our own pastas or breads, but perhaps we’ll start with foccaccia. We’ll have lots of gluten-free and vegetarian options. As for dessert, we’ll have flourless cake, cannolis, lemoncello, tiramisu, cheesecake, and something we made up that you have to come to find out what it is.
The food is served family style, and the price range is $25 per person including an alcoholic beverage. There are two pricings on the menu – a two person pricing and a 4-5 person pricing. Regardless, you will still go home with leftovers!
Justin, what are the main goals for the restaurant this year?
We want to venture off into catering. You don’t find much Italian catering. We want to perfect the art. We want to still be here in ten years. And, we see Bella’s expanding beyond Charlottesville in ten years.
|Chefi Austin||Bella||GM Justin|
Pizza or Pasta? Pasta.
Best dessert in Cville? Cheesecake from Hot Cakes.
Biggest challenge in the Bella kitchen? Being smaller, designing the kitchen with good flow and adequate storage space.
Microwave or toaster oven? Toaster oven please!
I bet you didn’t know I… was born and raised a local boy.
Favorite dish to cook on Bella’s menu? It has been a blast to create and perfect all the dishes, but I would have to say the Zuppa di peche.
Marinara or alfredo? Marinara.
Best cocktail in Cville?Bellini.
Most unexpected thing about opening Bella? None.
Spork or chopsticks? Fork.
Childhood super hero? Super Women.
I bet you didn’t know I… Love working with my husband.
Favorite dish on Bella’s menu? Carbonara.
Ice cream or gelato? Gelato.
Best coffee in Cville?Calvino Cafe.
Hardest thing about opening a restaurant? Making sure not one detail has been overlooked.
Early mornings or late nights? Late nights.
When I was little I wanted to be… a businessman. I was always thinking of ways to make money for myself (mowing lawns, washing cars, etc.).
I bet you didn’t know…I love jazz music.
Most popular Bella dish prediction? Pasta Forno.
|Chefi Austin||Bella||GM Justin|
What would be your last meal on earth? On the table there would be fresh grilled lobster tail, luscious shrimp sautéed in olive oil with garlic, and perfectly steamed crab. There would have to be some mouth-watering fresh fettuccini pasta with creamy clam sauce. All served with fresh baked bread and olive oil.
What would be the setting for the meal? Everything white as can be on the waters edge on a white sandy beach.
What would you drink with your meal? Might as well have the biggest bottle of the best Pino Grigio chilled, nested on a bed of ice.
Who would prepare the meal? Mama Besinti!
Who would be your dining companions? My family along with my good friends who helped me make all this happen.
Would there be music? Jazz.
What would be your last meal on earth? Supli, Carbonara and Cheese Cake.
What would be the setting for the meal? Candle light.
What would you drink with your meal? Pinot Grigio.
Who would prepare the meal? Chefi.
Who would be your dining companions? My Husband and our kids and family.
Would there be music? Yes, Jazz.
What would be your last meal on earth? A huge lobster with lots of warm butter, an artichoke and a cheesecake.
What would be the setting for the meal? At my mom’s house.
What would you drink with your meal? Mango juice.
Who would prepare the meal? Bobby Flay.
Who would be your dining companions? My family and friends.
Would there be music? Oscar Peterson.