Bella Mia — Restaurant of the Year

January 21, 2011

Greg Cox of the News & Observer named Bella Mia his “Restaurant of the Year.” Now some people have asked, “A pizza joint?  Restaurant of the year? Seriously?”

My response: Most definitely.

Note that Cox did not say Bella Mia was the best restaurant of the year.  Nor did he give it his highest rating of 5 stars — it only received 4 stars.

So why does Bella Mia deserve to be called the Restaurant of the Year?  When one looks at the state of pizza in the Triangle a year ago, there are a lot of places that make a decent pie.  Some have wood-fired ovens, some use great ingredients, and you could always get a solid pizza.  But could you get a transcendent pizza?  No.

Bella Mia makes a transcendent pizza.  Their coal-fired oven hits temperatures of nearly 1,000 degrees.  The Guerra brothers, Louis and Anthony, use the finest ingredients and cook those pizzas with just the right amount of char.  There is no place in North Carolina that comes close to this play.  Some individuals may disagree, but the consensus is that Bella Mia is unlike any pizzeria that came before it in our area.  And because it is so much better than anyone else makes it worthy of the ROTY designation.

This is the only restaurant with which I am totally obsessed.  I’ve probably eaten there 30-40 times since they opened.  I’ve gotten to know the Guerra family fairly well, and when you think of how big of a chance they took, investing in beautiful tile-laden coal-fired ovens in the back of a Cary strip mall, I can’t help but smile over their success.  They dared to raise the bar for an iconic food like pizza, and they blew away the competition in doing so.

So congratulations to Bella Mia and the Guerra family.  And a big thumbs up to Greg Cox to have the balls to pick a pizza joint as his Restaurant of the Year.  Who’da thunk it?

Restaurant Review Roulette: Bella Mia

September 29, 2010

Most of the places that Greg Cox reviews are restaurants I’ve never visited, and all too often, I’ve never even heard of them.  I try to guess how many stars the place will get based on the restaurant’s website and menu, and then I look at Yelp and Chowhound to see if there’s been any discussion.  And then I guess.

This week is different, as Greg will be reviewing Cary’s Bella Mia, a coal-fired pizza joint.  I sort of know this restaurant.  Quite honestly, I’m a bit obsessed by it, having eaten there 15-20 times since they opened back in June.  I’ve become personal friends of the family that owns the place, Rick Guerra, his sons Louis and Anthony, and Rick’s sister, the ever-charming Lucie Guerra.  I’ve tried just about everything on the menu.  I’ve drunk their beers.  I’ve sampled Lucie’s desserts.  I’ve declared Bella Mia to be the best pizza in the Triangle, if not the state.  There are others who disagree, as they might not get what Bella Mia is trying to do, with their 900 degree oven, fueled with oak and anthracite.  They might not like the pizzas that are cooked in two minutes, with a thin crust slightly charred on the bottom.  But of the dozens of people I’ve introduced to Bella Mia, at least two-thirds agree with me that it’s the best pizza in the area — by far.  There will never be unanimity, but that many people cannot be wrong.

So now Greg Cox has visited Bella Mia several times and is ready to write about it.  Greg has an unwritten rule that 4 stars is as high of a rating he’ll give to a casual place, and although Bella Mia is far nicer than one would ever expect for a pizza joint, it’s still a pizza joint.  Yes, the pizza is amazing.  Yes, the beer selection is solid.  Yes, I had a clam and lardo pie last week.  But will Greg give this place more than 4 stars?  I know he won’t give it 5, because that rating is reserved for the more formal, high dollar establishments.

Bella Mia is transcendent, and it deserves more than 4 stars.  No one does anything like it in the area, and so I’m really hoping it’s a 4.5 star review.  That’ll send a message to the restaurant community that if you do something extraordinary, you’ll be rewarded.  We’ll see on Friday.

Here are this week’s odds:

5 stars — 22 to 1

4.5 stars – 5 to 4

4 stars — 1 to 2

3.5 stars — 4 to 1

3 stars — 12 to 1

2.5 stars — 20 to 1

2 stars — 100 to 1

1.5 stars — 5,000 to 1

1 star — 1 bazillion to 1

I really hope they get the 4.5 stars, but I’m expecting 4.  Let’s hope I’m wrong.


Edit: October 1, 2010 — It’s a very strong 4-star review for Bella Mia.  Greg Cox had nothing but praise for the pizza, calling it “flawless.”  And this demonstrates the problem with any star-based review system: a place like this is unable to get any more than 4 stars.  That’s why it’s important to just read the damn review and not focus on the number of stars.  And then go get you a pizza.

Restaurant Review Roulette: Courtney’s Bistro

July 14, 2010

If you ask a local for a good breakfast spot, Courtney’s will get mentioned as much as anyone else.  There are a few Courtney’s locations in the Triangle, and many people swear their breakfasts are the best in the area.  I don’t agree, as the food has always been decent, but not great, but I can understand the appeal.  Courtney’s also serves lunch, offering soups, salads and sandwiches.  Courtney’s has not, however, traditionally served dinner.  Until recently.

Enter Chef Orobosa John Uwagbai.  And Courtney’s Bistro.  Chef Orobosa is a native Nigerian who has been cooking low country fare in the Charleston area for some time, and then worked at Gregory’s in Cary.  The Courtney’s Bistro website claims he’s listed as one of the top 25 chefs in the country (although they don’t list the source of that list).  He’s now partnered with the owners of Courtney’s to offer a “unique and exquisite dinner service.”  Now this is quite a combination, combining crystal and linen with the diner-like feel of Courtney’s.  The menu certainly focuses on low country specialties such as shrimp and grits and gumbo, but he also offers traditional fare such as rack of lamb and pasta dishes.

And now Greg Cox gets to review this bizarre combination.

I have no clue how good the food is.  I have no clue how this concept works.  I have no clue if Greg Cox will love or loathe the place.  What to do, oh, what to do?

Punt.  That’s what I need to do.  But, alas, this being Restaurant Review Roulette, I cannot run away.  I have to establish the odds.  There is a substantial amount of betting going on, I’m sure (snicker), and so I offer this week’s prognostication: Courtney’s Bistro will garner 3 stars.

5 stars — 200 to 1

4.5 stars – 20 to 1

4 stars — 9 to 2

3.5 stars — 2 to 1

3 stars — 3 to 2

2.5 stars —  5 to 2

2 stars — 3 to 1

1.5 stars — 7 to 1

1 star — 17 to 1

I don’t know a soul who has tried Courtney’s Bistro.  Let me know your thoughts.  And your predictions.


Edit, July 16, 2010: Greg Cox gave Courtney’s Bistro 3 stars, just as I predicted.  However, the description of the food sounds as if Courtney’s Bistro could have merited at least another half star.  I guess the guy has a problem with formica tables.

Lucky Me Tastes the Menu at Lucky 32

July 13, 2010

Image courtesy of Lucky 32

You might have heard of Lucky 32, and you might have even eaten there over the years.  There are  two Lucky 32 locations, one in Greensboro and the other in Cary near Regency Park, and until last year, I didn’t think much about the place.  My recollections of Lucky 32 were of a glorified, slightly high-end chain restaurant in the ilk of Tripp’s.  The menu was all over the place, with food representing cuisine from just about every major country.  People who have never been have told me that they thought it was a Chinese restaurant.

Last October, while attending the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual symposium, I was waiting in line to get some grub and started talking to this guy with long hair pulled back into a pony tail and a bitchin’ goatee.  He told me his name was Jay Pierce, and that he was the chef at Lucky 32.  In a moment of Southern food snobbery, I wondered what the hell a chef of a high-end Applebee’s was doing at the SFA symposium.  I quickly learned from Chef Pierce that Lucky 32 was a completely different restaurant, that it had a focus on Southern cuisine with locally sourced ingredients.  I couldn’t believe that Lucky 32 had changed so much.

A month or two later, I got an email from Jay, asking me if I’d be willing to come over and go through a tasting of the new winter menu.  I was intrigued by what they were doing, and so I came over at lunch time and joined Jay and General Manager Shane Garrity in a whirl-wind tour of about 15 dishes.  These were dishes that were sometimes classic Southern, but always inspired by Southern traditions.  I offered my comments to Jay, telling him what I liked and what I would change slightly.  I told Chef Pierce that Lucky 32 had become a high-end “meat and 3” place, as the side dishes were as much of a feature as the mains.  He liked that concept, but frankly, I had forgotten about it until recently.

Flash forward to two weeks ago, when Jay invited me back to try to summer menu, which he was calling “Suddenly This Summer.”  I was excited to get back for two reasons.  First of all, because I had failed to write about my first tasting experience, but second, and more importantly, because I wanted to see what he was going to do with summer produce.  As I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed that the name of the restaurant had slightly changed; it’s now “Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen.”  It appears this transformation to a high end meat and 3 is complete, so I was anxious to eat.  This is what I tasted, and the comments I gave. Read the rest of this entry »

Coal-Fired Pizza Finally Here

June 30, 2010

I love pizza, and even mediocre pizza is pretty damn good.  But great pizza is so hard to find — the Triangle has not had a great pizza place.  And when I say “great”, I mean the pizza is hauntingly memorable, where you can’t get the taste out of your head.  I’ve had great pizza in New York, New Haven and Phoenix.  This pizza is all about the crust, with a slight char, where the toppings almost melt into oblivion.  Moreover, these pizzas (or pizze) are inevitably cooked in super-hot ovens, typically 900 degrees or more and fired with coal.  Most pizza joints have gas-fueled pizza ovens, which can get up to 500 degrees or so, but still far cooler than what’s needed.  Wood-fired ovens get a bit hotter, but not quite enough.  Coal is where it’s at.  And we now have a coal-fired pizza oven in the Triangle.  In Cary, of all places.  And very close to my home.

This place is Bella Mia, in the Arboretum at the corner of Weston Parkway and Harrison Avenue.  The place is owned by Rick Guerra, a New Yorker if there ever was one.   Guerra is friendly and passionate about what he does.  His sons man the two ovens that are fueled initially with oak, and then hard coal to bring up the heat.  The flour is imported “00” grade.  The tomatoes, San Marzano.  The mozzarella, from water buffaloes.  This place doesn’t put second rate ingredients on its pies, and damn, the crust is so good.

We’re talking fairly thin-crust Neapolitan-style pizza here.  And as I said above, it’s all about the crust — perfectly charred, with just the right amount of texture and salt (and not even the slightest bit of sweetness, thank you very much).  I’d prefer it just slightly thinner, but I’m not complaining.  This is the real deal, folks, and I suspect Bella Mia will soon have lines snaking out the door, as NO ONE in the Triangle has a pizza this good.  Just order the Margherita and enjoy.  I just finished an hour ago, and I’m already wanting to get back.

Bella Mia
2015 Renaissance Park Place (in the Arboretum off Westin Pkwy)
Cary, NC

Restaurant Review Roulette: Carini

June 30, 2010

Another week, another review of a restaurant that I may never visit.  Oh, the glamorous life of a restaurant reviewer!  Seriously, I know Greg Cox’s primary objective is to be a consumer advocate.  He’s trying to help his readers make dining decisions, but for god’s sake, wouldn’t it be maddening to have to go to middling places day after day?  Places that are new not in concept or cuisine, but only in name?

This week’s subject: Carini, an Italian place in Cary (warning: home page has music that cannot be turned off).  Now this is the exact type of restaurant I look for in unfamiliar towns when I’m trying to line up a team meal for one of my kids’ soccer teams during a tournament.  I want the tried and true Italian-American menu, with lots of inexpensive pasta offerings and the availability of pizza.  There are thousands of places like this across the country (maybe even the state), and rarely does one stand out, on either the good or the bad side.  But this is not the type of place I generally want to visit on a night out in the Triangle.  I’m sure it’s just fine — but that’s the problem.  I want more than “just fine” when dining in the area.

I don’t know the history of Carini.  I don’t know the owners.  I don’t know how long they’ve been around.  I don’t know what type of pizza they offer or whether their red sauce is piquant or sweet.  I don’t know if their desserts are made in house or purchased from a supplier (I suspect the latter based on the pictures).

What I’m pretty sure of is that you can probably get a very reliable meal at Carini, just like most other Italian joints.  I base this on a couple of diner reviews floating around the internet.  It’s not great and not bad.

So, I’m guessing it gets 3 stars.  Not great.  Not bad.  Here are this week’s odds:

5 stars — 150 to 1

4.5 stars – 80 to 1

4 stars — 14 to 1

3.5 stars — 3 to 1

3 stars — 2 to 1

2.5 stars — 3 to 1

2 stars — 7 to 1

1.5 stars — 25 to 1

1 star — 45 to 1

If website design were part of the review, I would have given the place less than 2 stars, but even Greg Cox doesn’t use that in his process.  How many stars do you think Carini will get?


Edit — July 2, 2010: As predicted, Carini received 3 stars.  No, it’s not that I’m that good in predicting what Greg Cox will do, it’s just that this restaurant was so predictable.

Restaurant Review Roulette: Tribeca Tavern

June 2, 2010

Rocky Top Hospitality’s latest restaurant, Tribeca Tavern, is an homage to burgers.  And it’s the subject of News & Observer restaurant critic Greg Cox’s review this week.  Located in a huge space in Cary, I’ve heard a few decent things about the place and their burgers.  I’ve heard they grind their own beef and bake their own brioche rolls.  I’ve also heard that the service is a bit suspect, which should not surprise anyone — as any new place of this size will take quite some time until they get the kinks worked out.

I love me a good burger, and I’ll be heading over to try a Tribeca Tavern version one of these days, regardless of what Greg Cox’s review says.  I suspect he’ll like the burgers.  I suspect he’ll not like the service.  I suspect he’ll think the menu is too expansive, leading to inconsistency in other foods.  And I suspect he’ll give Tribeca Tavern 3.5 stars.

Here are this week’s odds:

5 stars — 50 to 1

4.5 stars – 14 to 1

4 stars — 5 to 1

3.5 stars — 2 to 1

3 stars — 4 to 1

2.5 stars —  7 to 1

2 stars — 11 to 1

1.5 stars — 18 to 1

1 star — 64 to 1

So, what do you think Greg Cox will give Tribeca Tavern?


(Edit — June 4, 2010) — Well, it’s a 3-star review for Tribeca Tavern.  Restaurant critic Greg Cox noted that the place was still on the upside of the learning curve, and the burgers outshine anything else on the menu.  Cox also prefers his burgers to be of the simple variety, instead of the myriad “baroque” combinations on the menu.

Point of correction: the buns at Tribeca Tavern are not baked in-house.  They’re baked by the local Neomonde bakery.  They get a lot of their stuff from in-state providers including beef, cheeses, produce and even pickles!  Thanks to owner Dean Ogan for pointing this out to me.  I’m really going to have to give their burger a try.