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by Catherine Currin | photography by Taylor McDonald
“I was very lucky to grow up in a large Italian family,” says Corbett Monica. “My grandmother was the matriarch, and everyone came to her house after church on Sundays. Every week it would change on who would show up, but there was always someone there.” And no matter who came, there was one constant: loads and loads of food.
In New York and New Jersey—where Monica and his wife, Julie, are from—Italian-American restaurants are pretty common. But down here, they’re more of a novelty. So just a year after the couple moved here in 1999 with hopes of opening a restaurant, they opened Bella Monica (named after Julie, the “beautiful Monica”) as an homage to the family-owned joints they missed. “It was always going to be Italian,” he says. “Bella Monica is the food that we grew up with, it’s our heritage food.”
When they bought the location that would be their restaurant, it was a takeout pizza place in a shopping strip at the corner of Edwards Mill and Duraleigh Roads. “We really piecemealed it together as we grew,” says Monica. The unassuming restaurant has evolved to include a small bar, some booths, an outdoor patio and a private room for special events. The walls are adorned with rotating local art; dozens of Italian wine bottles are proudly displayed behind the bar. It’s cozy, it’s unfussy and it’s a welcoming spot that has become a neighborhood favorite and a celebration-night destination for Raleighites over the past two decades.
Monica loves his regulars and has enjoyed watching families grow up through the restaurant, visiting for birthdays, anniversaries and even prom dinners—the same sort of family atmosphere his grandmother established in her home. While the restaurant has never done formal advertising, Monica says word of mouth has been their best asset. “It’s been important to be able to grow like that in this community. It’s honest, it’s genuine.”
In regards to the menu, it leans Italian-American, to be distinguished from Italian-Italian—“You’d be hard-pressed to find a Chicken Parmesan on a menu in Italy!” laughs Monica. Here, you can enjoy a plate of piping-hot lasagna smothered in cheese and gravy (that’s tomato sauce, for the lay folks) with a hefty glass of house red wine, their signature Caesar salad topped with roasted red peppers or warm, house-made focaccia, topped with olive oil, onion and chive.
Monica says his executive chef Alex Martinez is making the family proud after 16 years with the restaurant. Alongside perennial favorites, Martinez invites new recipes into the mix every now and then based on travels and food trends—like low-carb options among the pasta-forward selections, or unique takes on old favorites (see: the crab flatbread, their pizza-esque version of a crab cake). Monica says his favorite dish changes regularly, but right now he’s on a kick with the shrimp and calamari entrée: sautéed seafood served on a bed of squid ink linguini with Calabrian sausage. I got to taste this one on my visit—order it!
Many of the menu items nod to Monica’s ancestral roots, like the stuffed tuna peppers (bite-sized spicy and sweet peppers filled with Sicilian tuna salad), a favorite along the Italian coast. There’s an entire section titled ‘Favorites from Nana’s Cucina,’ including the Baked Ziti (Monica refers to it as “mac and cheese”), the first thing he learned to cook with his grandmother. He chose his mother’s method of preparing meatballs and gravy, however. “My grandmother cooked them in the sauce, but my mom pan-fried them before adding the sauce,” says Monica. “I do it my mom’s way because it adds another level of texture and flavor.”
In 2017, the Monicas opened Stellino’s in West Cary, the sister restaurant to Bella Monica. It’s named for his teenage daughter, Stella. “Both restaurants are named for my girls,” says Monica. The menu mimics Bella Monica’s for the most part, and there are still the classic favorites like lasagna and stuffed shells, but with more space at this location comes more creativity in the kitchen. “Because we’re in a new shopping center, we had a blank slate. We were able to design and build the whole space out, with a cool mix of rustic and contemporary design—something I noticed on my travels to Italy,” says Monica. “We also had the capacity to bring in a fryer, something we don’t have at Bella Monica.” That means the menu includes additions like Arancini (fried risotto balls) and fried calamari. Monica says with the success and loyal following of Bella Monica, it was a natural progression to open a second restaurant in a new neighborhood. “There’s so much great community here. When we moved here and opened Bella Monica, we wanted people to come into our restaurants and feel comfortable, enjoy themselves and have some delicious food. It’s all about communities taking care of communities.”