Classic Italian food features simple ingredients prepared simply but put together with passion, Master Chef Vinnie DeAngelo believes.
He's the owner of Bella Luna Bistro on West Main Street in downtown Merced. The enterprise features a restaurant and bar open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, a banquet division that's busy seven days a week, and an expanding go-anywhere catering division through a mobile food truck.
DeAngelo, 58, has been cooking professionally for 40 years and is a 1980 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York. A first generation American, DeAngelo grew up in New York, the son of parents who emigrated here from Italy.
"Food has basically been my life," DeAngelo said. "Food, wine and people are what life is based on. I enjoy all that stuff. With Italians, food is always part of the conversation of the day. When you are eating a meal, the subject comes up about what's next."
Asked what bistro means, DeAngelo said it embodies robust flavors served in an informal, casual atmosphere, with good, friendly service and where you definitely can feel the hand of the chef.
Bella Luna's two-page menu features entrees including chicken parmesan, chicken picatta, chicken marsala, grilled salmon, calamari dore, veal parmesan, blackened ribeye and grilled flat iron steak.
Pastas include Cajun shrimp, angel hair primavera, gnocchi, chicken Alfredo, lasagne florentina, crab raviolis and tortellini Catherina. Hot sandwiches include pastrami, buttermilk chicken and meatball parmesan and four different hamburgers are offered.
"You have to have passion and good products," DeAngelo says. "Bella Luna means 'beautiful moon' and our slogan is 'we deliver the moon.' You have to be good every day. You have to over-deliver on products and service, work really hard and never lose that passion."
For him, that means working seven days a week, somewhere between 75 and 100 hours a week. It's what is necessary to succeed.
DeAngelo espouses "old stove cooking" which is a food industry term and the way his family cooked when they came from Naples, Italy. It means creating homemade pastas, meatballs, sausage and fresh-baked bread among other delights.
At Bella Luna, chefs try to produce everything they can in-house. That way they can control the quality, he says. Boosting the Central Valley, the restaurant works with local farmers to bring local bounty to the table, such as tomatoes and figs featured in a number of specialty dishes.
DeAngelo operated a restaurant in downtown Merced by the same name for 20 years. A disastrous fire five years ago gutted the West Main Street restaurant. After moving to a temporary location at Childs Avenue and Highway 99, the restaurant was rebranded Bella Luna Bistro and returned to its revamped downtown location a couple years ago.
Creativity is the key to being a chef, DeAngelo believes. He says he sees the end result before he starts cooking and looks at the ingredients available as he creates something new. He wants flavor balances and each component of the dish to contribute something. This means the bread must be soft, the meats warm and topped with crunchy and fresh cabbage slaw in some instances.
"I see it before it is done, for sure," DeAngelo says. "I know what I am looking for."
For something different, DeAngelo offers a jalapeno lemon drop cocktail, featuring vodka, jalapenos and mottled or mashed lemon juice. Figs and tomatoes in season end up in the grilled asparagus caprese.
Another notable element of Bella Luna Bistro is its authentic New York-style pizzas, fired in a brick oven that was made in Brooklyn. There are 14 different varieties, which include pepperoni, salamis, meatballs, barbecue chicken, fig preserves, roasted mushrooms, linguica, jalapeno bacon, cheeses and white sauces.
Eddie Garcia is Bella Luna's executive sous chef. He has been with the restaurant for eight years after serving an internship there through the Institute of Technology cooking school in Modesto.
"I like to be creative, mess around and try to create different flavor profiles. I always try to create new dishes and love working with fresh vegetables," Garcia said. His favorite dish is bacon duck fries and he loves cooking for large numbers of people.
DeAngelo is reviving his Valley Chef program, which he ran for a couple of years in the early 2000s. He features the products of local farmers and businesses in a newsletter, in cooking demonstrations and as part of the gourmet club that meets once a month. He is working to increase the social media presence of the Valley Chef program.
— Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.Bella Luna BistroLocation:
350 W. Main St., MercedHours of operation:
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday and MondayContact: