I tried to resist, really I did. But the temptation was just too great. I broke my long-standing rule about allowing a new restaurant a month to iron out the wrinkles before paying it a first review visit.
It was a rare moment of weakness. I pride myself on my willpower, which has previously withstood the siren calls of foie gras and butter-poached lobster with aplomb.
But coal-fired pizza, now that's another matter. I've had pizzas cooked in a coal-burning oven only a handful of times in my life, and each one has ranked among the very best pies I've ever had. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, the nearest place to get a fix was 500 miles away, at one of the legendary pizzerias of New York and Connecticut.
Until June, that is, when Bella Mia in Cary became the first restaurant in North Carolina with a coal-fired oven. Two coal-fired ovens, actually: one, burning at a red-hot 900 degrees, dedicated to pizzas, and the other designed for roasting house-made meatballs, vegetables and such at a more moderate temperature.
The ovens represent the realization of a long-held dream for Long Island native Rick Guerra, but they're just the starting point of a dream come true for pizza aficionados in the Triangle.
Before opening the restaurant, Guerra and his sons, Louis and Anthony, spent more than a year making educational pilgrimages to the country's pre-eminent pizzerias. The brothers honed their skills under the tutelage of internationally renowned pizzaiolo Roberto Caporuscio. Then they stocked Bella Mia's kitchen with San Marzano tomatoes, flour imported from Italy, fresh buffalo mozzarella, local produce and naturally raised meats.
Giving in to temptation
With all these facts whispering alluringly in my head, my willpower crumbled after only five days. On the drive to the restaurant, I reassured myself that if the restaurant wasn't yet ready for prime time I'd give it a mulligan in the interest of fairness.
I needn't have worried. The margherita pizza I ordered was easily the best I've had in these parts, a sublime patchwork of house-made sauce, creamy mozzarella and fresh basil on a thin, blistery crust. The Guerra brothers had even taken care to tuck the basil leaves under the mozzarella to prevent their burning, while allowing their flavor to infuse the pie. If the crust was just a shade underdone, it still came admirably close to the standard set by pizzaioli who have spent decades mastering the art.
Evidently, the young brothers are quick studies. On subsequent visits, the margherita pies (including one with real pepperonis that put the insipid pretenders served elsewhere to shame) have been flawless.
So were the house specialty pies I've sampled so far from a list of nearly a dozen, all named for famous New York addresses. The Houston Street, for instance, which punctuates the brooding bass notes of smoked mozzarella with bright cherry tomatoes. And the Broadway, which gets a post-baking shower of arugula, prosciutto di parma and shaved gran cru pecorino. And the lardo pie that's occasionally offered as a special, whose star ingredient is cured fatback sliced so thin that its musky, porky essence melts into the crust - and then into your soul.
The ideal pie
The classic 12-inch size is the purist's ideal, allowing for a consistently crisp crust that's nearly impossible to achieve with larger pies. It also leaves room for exploration of the savory fare issuing from the other coal-fired oven. Anthony Guerra's grass-fed beef meatballs are a winner in their own right, but it's their oven-crisped bottoms that make them stand out. Garlic- and rosemary-marinated chicken wings are a succulent detour away from the well-trodden road to Buffalo. And, while Bella Mia's salad selection offers ample opportunities to satisfy the grazing urge, the salad of coal oven-roasted vegetables is not to be missed.
House-made desserts - options range from tiramisu served in espresso cups to a rustic, walnut crumb-topped apple pie - won't let you down, either. Nor will the modest but thoughtfully chosen selection of wines and draft beers.
But it's the pizzas that are unquestionably Bella Mia's claim to fame. My only regret is that, when the Guerras shucked a bunch of fresh clams for a clam pie special recently, I found out about it too late to try it. If I ever read on the restaurant's Twitter feed that they're doing an encore performance, I doubt I'll be able to hold out five hours.