Beautiful Kitchen

Shrimp Toscana. Photo by Bethany Turner

Shrimp Toscana. Photo by Bethany Turner

The first time I sat down to a dish of Penne Bolognese at Bella Cucina Seafood, Pasta and Pizza, I was awarded a treat I never knew existed on the largely commercial strip of Southport-Supply Rd. Situated beside a Hampton Inn, Bella Cucina’s outer appearance is understated in a beige, white and stone building. I’d been there once for pizza and sat in the deli-style side of the restaurant, where black-and-white checkered floors, chalkboard menus, and glass cases of pizza slices reign. Though I took small note of the lounge to the right, I had no idea how big the building actually was.

The lounge itself is inviting. The lengthy, brown marble bar seems eager to host a hefty glass of red wine (Banfi Centine Toscana, perhaps?) or an espresso cocktail made with the real caffeinated stuff. Even the six taps runneth over with craft-beer selections; domestics are reserved for bottles. On the day I chatted with owner Tom McAndrews (the younger one, Tom McAndrews III, not his father who also plays a role in the Italian restaurant), the draft selection included Oskar Blues Brewery, Blue Point Brewing Company, and Carolina Brewing Company, amongst others.

But the first time I walked into the warm, Tuscan-inspired dining room for a meal with close friends, I was amazed. Shielded by long, gold-colored curtains, I’d really never known the dining space of Bella Cucina existed. Perhaps it’s the building’s sly appearance that it’s a small space, perhaps it’s my own ignorance for never checking past the chalkboard menu. But the folks at Bella Cucina are crafting fine Italian dishes (and scrumptious New York-style pizza)—and it’s a shame for anyone who isn’t aware.

Garlic knots. Photo by Bethany Turner

Garlic knots. Photo by Bethany Turner

Originally from New York, McAndrews’ family often vacationed in Emerald Isle, NC as he was growing up. They planned to one day open a business in Wilmington. “We decided to share my grandmother’s old recipes with the world,” McAndrews tells. “We found Southport, and it’s a lot like the sleepy, seaside town we grew up in on Long Island. We immediately fell in love with it. We found this spot right beside the Hampton Inn and we jumped on it.”

This year, Bella Cucina celebrated its 10th anniversary, and the restaurant continues its dedication to family recipes. “My mom’s the Italian one; de Maio was her name,” the owner amends. “My mom’s mom and her two sisters are from the Naples region originally, before they came to the U.S. Their food is the inspiration for this place. A lot of our recipes are direct family recipes, they way we’ve made them for generations: meatballs, lasagna.”

McAndrews’ parents often travel to Italy, across the country but mostly in Tuscany, while McAndrews occasionally travels to the region. They bring back new ideas for nightly specials or menu staples.

“Mom and Dad are both great cooks,” McAndrews beams. “We’re a Tuscan-theme restaurant; we use mostly fresh, simple dishes. We don’t do spice. We try to use maybe three ingredients in our dinner specials and try to bring out the flavors in those. That’s why we use fresh, local produce. We try to work with local farmers. We use Haag and other vendors in this area for seafood fresh off the boat.”

McAndrews notes that seafood is actually the Italian eatery’s number-three seller (after spaghetti and meatballs and lasagna, of course). “We just try to do it the best we can. A lot of places around here are frozen and fried. We use the fresh grouper and triggerfish that is abundant in this area,” he tells. “That’s the way it is in Italy; they use whatever is closest to them and take advantage of that.”

Broccoli Pizza. Photo by Bethany Turner

Broccoli Pizza. Photo by Bethany Turner

As a child, McAndrews recalls that he could have eaten Italian for each dinner. “I probably drove my mom crazy, wanting sauce every night,” he jokes. “Italians know how to bring out the best flavors in food naturally. I love Cajun, Mexican, and other types of spicy foods, but when I was in Italy that was one thing I noticed: The fruits and vegetables are so fresh, you can taste it right away.”

Nightly specials often feature clams, mussels, scallops, or veal di saltimbocca or pork tenderloin. “People love how our chef, Tracie Bartlow, prepares the scallops. Tracie has been here about a year and a half. She’s been great, born and raised here, very well-known in the area. Her family is Cajun and she’s traditionally trained that way, so she had to unlearn everything because that’s heavy spice,” McAndrews muses.

Tracie Bartlow, executive chef of Bella Cucina in Southport, maintains a clean kitchen and prepares the freshest ingredients for each dish. Photo by Bethany Turner

Tracie Bartlow, executive chef of Bella Cucina in Southport, maintains a clean kitchen and prepares the freshest ingredients for each dish. Photo by Bethany Turner

Pizza chef Joel Wilcox authenticates the New York style (he relocated here from the northern state), crafting Bella Cucina’s pies to bring out the full flavor of the sauces and cheese.

Likewise, Bella Cucina attempts to recreate Tuscany’s fresh-food phenomenon in its own kitchen in the states for every dish. “While it’s a challenge to find quality product like that here, it is possible, you just have to work hard to find it,” McAndews explains. “For dishes like chicken parm, we use the best cheese we can get. We tried a lot of different tomato products for sauces, and we ultimately choose the best. A lot of places don’t do that, because it will cost more, but we feel our customers can taste it. When I see one of our first-time customers bite into one of our dishes, I can see on their faces right away that they can taste the difference. Even our stromboli and calzones are made-to-order. You may wait a little bit more for the quality, but in the end you’ll definitely appreciate it.”

The same freshness applies to Bella’s desserts, from traditional tiramisu to bread pudding. Like every other dish, McAndrews insists on using high-quality base ingredients. “Our bread pudding is amazing because we use great bread to start with, and that really makes it.”

In the community, Bella Cucina seeks to give back as often as possible. The restaurant frequently donates time, food and funds to area organizations like Communities in Schools, Paws Place, and more. Recently, Bella Cucina donated dinners for 70 people for band camp at the high school.

Pizza chef Joel Wilcox is a New York transplant. He crafts pizza in the NY style, and he ties garlic knots with quick fingers.

Pizza chef Joel Wilcox is a New York transplant. He crafts pizza in the NY style, and he ties garlic knots with quick fingers.

In the same vein, a year-round loyalty card is available for locals to use. There is a card for lunch, pizza, wine or in the dining room, to earn rewards. “When you use the dining room card, you can earn a free entrée, and it will be the highest priced entrée on your ticket that night,” McAndrews notes. “We wanted to do something to let people in the area know we aren’t just here for the tourist season.”

As for the family, Tom McAndrews II helps out with the business side of the restaurant, while Jared McAndrews, the owner’s son, serves as assistant manager and head bartender. Jared is responsible for Bella’s signature drinks, which McAndrews describes as “simple and elegant.”

“We’re foodies. I’m an engineer by trade, spent 20 years in the Air Force, so this was a big adjustment for me. But my family has been a big help,” McAndrews declares. “The place is called Bella Cucina—beautiful kitchen—because that’s where everything started. The family gathers in the kitchen, you cook in there, you hang around, play games, you have fun. That’s what it’s all about: celebrating the kitchen and celebrating the family.”

Bella Cucina Seafood, Pasta and Pizza
5177 Southport-Supply Rd. SE
(910) 454-4540 • www.belladiningnc.com

Bella Cucina features a warm and inviting bar and lounge area in addition to the dining room and pizza deli.

Bella Cucina features a warm and inviting bar and lounge area in addition to the dining room and pizza deli.

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Southport Area's Culture & Events Magazine