Chow Bella: Rome-inspired restaurant to open in March
What does the man who created Charlottesville's Wild Wing Café do for an encore? He builds another restaurant on West Main Street– only this time it's not a television-laden sports bar, but instead an intimate Italian eatery. And it will honor his wife, a 37-year-old native of Rome, who is lending her own nickname to what will be called Bella's.
"The menu is very simple," says owner Douglas Muir. "We're going to have nine entrées and one special each day."
Key to the concept are family-sized portions and prices that are a "happy medium" between the $14.95 Wild Wing meals and Charlottesville's high-end restaurants where an alcohol-accompanied dinner for two can easily top $100. The target price-point at Bella's, he says, is $25 per person including wine; for lunch, it's about half that.
"You'll see two prices for each item," says Muir, noting that oversized plates are intended for three or four people while even the small plates may be too much for most appetites.
"You're always gonna walk out with food from Bella's," says Muir.
"Americans eat fast and they're done," says Muir, noting that it's not unusual for an Italian meal to start at 6pm and end at midnight.
"If you're having real good food," his wife Valeria Bisenti interjects, "it'll last to one or two."
Indeed, the couple plan to keep the doors open until 2am on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays– with a 10pm closing time the other four days of the week. Muir expects the typical table at Bella's to turn over in about 90 minutes– a more leisurely pace, he says, than at other American restaurants.
"I wanted to bring my wife's culture to America," says Muir. "When we say real authentic Italian, we aren't kidding."
He's enthusing about the impending arrival of "Mamma," his mother-in-law, Lucia Sallese, who lives in Rome, whose farm in the Abruzzo region of Italy will supply the restaurant's olive oil, and who will soon land in Charlottesville for two months of training the chefs.
Amid all this Old World tradition, the restaurant plans to equip its wait-staff with iPod Touches to show off specials, to wirelessly transmit guest orders, and then– at meal's end– to read the credit cards.
Perched amid the dust and construction clatter, Muir notes that this venue, 707 West Main Street, is one half of the space formerly filled by some notable eateries (the other half is a florist shop). However, Bella's will bear little resemblance to Blue Ridge Brewing Company, Starr Hill, and the tapas restaurant known as Si because his team has built new bathrooms, stripped plaster off a brick wall, and begun crafting what he calls "the Soprano booth," a generous nook across from a planned 12-person mahogany bar.
Above seating for 50, a fanciful tin ceiling will be painted copper, and a chandelier will hang down to light the way for patrons and black-shirted waiters wearing mid-body aprons.
With a renovation and launch budget of $208,000, Muir says he's spending less than a third of the decade-ago cost to transform the decrepit former train station across the street into Wild Wing.
Muir is a 50-year-old who built and sold a collection agency for insurance companies and recently returned to Charlottesville after a five-year stint in Florida launching a credit repair business– one that he proudly notes has quickly become, with 1,000 employees, the nation's third largest.
This serial entrepreneur says he hopes to follow Bella's with the launch of same-named restaurants in Richmond, Norfolk, and Fairfax County, with a goal of selling each to its general manager, a strategy he followed at Wild Wing when selling to current owner Chad Ragland.
With a target opening date of March 16, the general manager has been documenting the process of creating Bella's on video– even taping a reporter interviewing the beaming couple.
"I worked at a lot of restaurants in Charlottesville," explains 25-year-old GM Justin Heilbrun-Toft, "and one thing I noticed was that restaurants don't create hype until they open. So we thought: let's start the hype now."
The result is a Facebook page complete with videos of such milestones as signatures inking the management contract and workers drilling into a wall. If social media and iTouches seem a little high-tech, Muir says the slow pace of Italian dining will be maintained by his bride, who will serve as the hostess.
"If Valeria sees you rushing," he says, "she's gonna come around and say basta, basta– which means cool it."