A Real Italian Experience

Photography by Daniel Smyth

When I sat down with Harry Stephens, owner of Bella Luna, he was neck-deep in papers: menu changes, dish ideas, receipts for food orders. The work had been motivated by a single experience abroad, where he discovered that when Americans talk about Italian food and when Italians talk about Italian food, they’re talking about two completely different things. 

The typical American’s idea of Italian food is inevitably some variation on spaghetti buried beneath heaping portions of marinara. In Italy, the reality emphasizes fresh regional ingredients, huge quantities of fish and simple sauces lightly spooned over homemade durum-wheat pasta.

Stephens traveled to Italy with his wife, Gay, and a few friends in April 2015. First and foremost, they went to have a relaxing vacation. But Stephens, being of Italian lineage, also wanted “to walk on the earth where my family started, to connect to that part of my soul.” The third and final reason for the vacation, and perhaps the least important one at its outset, was to taste the food. 

The group went from Calabria to Cinque Terre to Sienna to Tuscany to Florence to Rome, enjoying meal after delicious meal. Branzino (European sea bass) caught in the morning and cooked that night. Pici, a thick spaghetti noodle, served with black pepper, garlic and cheese. Wild boar ragù over portobello mushrooms. Octopus sautéed in olive oil. A steak quickly charred to lock in the flavor then served more rare than any stateside restaurant will allow.

And then there was the wine, perfectly paired with the Italian cuisine yet costing a fraction of what the same bottle would cost in America. 

“I did not expect to be surprised,” Stephens says. But he was surprised – at the dishes, at the wines, at the relaxing pace of the service, even at the ingredients: rabbit, artichokes, sardines, a soft pecorino cheese that he had never seen before. “It opened my eyes to a different perspective.” 

When Stephens returned to Bella Luna, he immediately set to work using that newfound perspective to craft a revitalized menu. Thus the new dish ideas, the new pricing on the wine menu and the search for new food suppliers. For example, the main ingredient in Bella Luna’s new sautéed octopus dish, one of Stephens’ favorite additions to the menu, comes from a source in Spain. He’s also added branzino and the pici dish, which Stephens says isn’t “killed with sauce.” 

As for the wine menu, which now predominantly features Italian wines: “I’ve always been someone who wanted to be known as a great seller of wine, rather than someone who has a great wine cellar,” Stephens quips. “I’d rather have customers experience the wine than have it just sit somewhere in my restaurant. I want people to drink really great wines that go well with my food at a reasonable price. 

“Bella Luna has been here for 14 years and it’s doing very well. Nothing’s broken,” he continues. “But everything needs a boost every once in a while. We’re doing a renaissance at Bella Luna, and it’s really exciting.”

Bella Luna’s Happy Hour runs Sunday-Friday 4:30-9 p.m. with $2 craft beers, $5 glasses of wine, $5 cocktails and $5 food bites.

Bella Luna is located at 4632 Eastern Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45226. You can reach them at 513.871.5862 or visit their website at www.bellalunacincy.com.