An 11th Avenue Italian Neighborhood Eatery

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - November 18, 2009
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Bella Mia chef Joe Gonzales

I started smiling about a minute after I sat down in Bella Mia. As a basket of freshly made croissant-shaped bread rolls came to the table with a bowl of marinara sauce for dipping, I looked around to check other diners had them, too. They did.

“It’s a welcome to everyone who comes to the table,” said Joe Gonzales, Bella Mia’s chef, when I talked to him after dinner. “In Hawaii you give lei, at Bella Mia we give bread.”

Hard not to like that sentiment, and in my three recent trips to this small, unassuming new restaurant, I found lots to love.

In the restaurant-filled 11th Avenue Atrium, formerly home to Sis Kitchen and more recently A Taste of New York Deli, the ground floor space now resembles a classic Italian neighborhood eatery. Redcheckered tablecloths set the tone for casual dining and the aroma of freshly baked dough, meatballs and garlic give the room its ambiance. The tiny open kitchen makes you feel as though you’re dining in someone’s home, and that’s the way Gonzales likes it.

Gonzales is a transplant from Brooklyn who came to Hawaii just two months ago to open the restaurant.

“I’ve been making this style of food since I was a kid,” he says in thick Brooklyn tones. “My brothers and my father are all pizza men. My father owned many restaurants in New York and I got my work ethic from him. On weekends when I was young, my brothers would take me to the restaurant to help.”

Watching them work, he quickly picked up the family tradition. “We’ve always made fresh food,” he says.

I don’t know quite where to start you off on the menu, as there are more things to recommend than I have space to mention, although I can tell you the Eggplant Rollatini is outstanding. Days after tasting it (for the second time) I am still craving more of the soft, fried eggplant wrapped around cheese and smothered with homemade tomato sauce. Be warned, though: This dish is not listed on the menu, so call and see if Gonzales is making it before you turn up with high expectations.

The meatballs are a must: Our boys devoured a huge portion with spaghetti and marinara sauce and then asked for more.

Gonzales says the best way to try his food is to order a dish you’re familiar with to see how he does it differently. Simple garlic and olive oil sauce ($6.95), pasta with sausages ($6.95) and a creamy, cheesy manicotti ($8.95) should be enough to convince you that the guy in the kitchen knows what he’s doing.

You can have Eggplant Parmigiana as a sandwich ($8.95) on a crusty Italian sub or with a pasta of your choice, and Gonzales’ Stromboli (meat and cheese-filled pasta dough turnover) offers great value - and portion size - for $9.95.

There’s much to love about this charming new dining spot, not least the fact that this is the food Gonzales and his family have been cooking for generations.

“Everything is made by hand,” says Gonzales. “We do it the old-fashioned way. No packaged food, no middlemen. Just fresh ingredients every day. It’s the only way I know how to cook.”

Bring your own wine and beer (there’s no corkage fee) and celebrate. You might just have found your new favorite restaurant.

Happy eating!

Bella Mia
11th Avenue Atrium

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