It’s been several years since Anthony Guerra’s family closed Bella Mia, a highly acclaimed, beloved pizza restaurant in Cary.
But his world still revolves around pizza, and he even travels to far-flung places just for a slice he’s heard about.
“My whole life has been pizza research,” says Guerra, who is 29. “That’s how Bella Mia was born. Going to all these places, absorbing what I could, putting into practice.”
Now he’s ready to put that research into practice in his own restaurant – Oakwood Pizza Box – which he hopes to open in late fall. He is opening the restaurant on 610 N. Person St., just a few doors down from Crawford and Son, where he works as the general manager.
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“This has always been on my to-do list,” he says entering the space of his future restaurant.
He wants his pizza to be simple and his restaurant to be fun, eliciting memories of childhood. There will be thin crust made with naturally fermented dough (no commercial yeast added), giving it a sourdough taste. Ingredients will be curated and well sourced.
There will be whole pies and pizza by the slice. The menu will be simple: five rotating specialty pizzas. There always will be a cheese pie with ingredients that can be added for toppings.
“Everything will be made that day,” Guerra said. “Hopefully we sell out of it, and make it all again tomorrow.”
For Guerra, his career has led to this moment. He thought it might come sooner than it has, but now says he’s grateful it didn’t. Now he’s able to draw on the experience learned with his family and other high-profile chefs he’s worked for, including Scott Crawford, Ashley Christensen at Poole’s Diner and Steven Devereaux Greene of An Asian Cuisine.
While he says the chefs, especially Crawford, mentored him and helped him “understand and grow up,” he is accustomed to working at a successful restaurant.
He helped his father open Bella Mia off Harrison Avenue in 2010. Anthony and his brother, Louis, made the pizzas on one of the only coal-fried pizza ovens in the area. They had barely been open a year when they were named Restaurant of the Year by The News & Observer’s food critic, Greg Cox. Well-known chefs dropped by for a slice.
The family sold the business in 2013 with family members deciding to pursue different dreams. Guerra went to Europe and “chased down wine.” He became a sommelier and became the manager of the beverage program at An, then the general manager.
He worked at Tre Forini in Durham last year before joining Crawford to help him open his own restaurant. All the while, he thought of how his restaurant would come together. His initial plans for a space and concept shifted, too. When the space on 610 Person opened it, he took it.
The building, which has housed Cybergraph Advertising Inc. since 2006, will need to be transformed into a working restaurant. (Cybergraph has moved to a larger facility between WakeMed Hospital and Raleigh Country Club.) There’s lots of work to be done, but as a former history major at UNC, Guerra is reveling in learning about his restaurant’s roots. He’s trying to confirm that the building once housed a diner in the ’50s.
Old black and white tiles cover the floor, with the discovery that even older patterned tile is in a layer beneath. And through the layers of exposed brick, he also has found some wood paneling.
“The space is giving us stuff,” he said, gesturing to the walls. “Listen to it. There’s comfort in seeing that, eating pizza and seeing change in the world.”
The old-school black-and-white floor helped dictate the design, Guerra said.
“This black and white floor is the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but somehow I need to save it,” he said.
The space has room for about 35 people with the potential for some patio seating.
For Guerra, Bella Mia was like going to his parents’ house on any given night. It was home, and that’s what he wants Oakwood Pizza to be like for his wife, Brett, and his 4-month-old daughter, Vivian. He’s even blocked out space for his new daughter’s playpen. “100 percent,” he says. “That’s in. That’s part of the design.” He jokes that Vivian is a tough negotiator when they go to meetings.
There’s a nervous excitement surrounding Guerra. He said his mother always wanted him to be challenged and to chase his dream. But he is channeling that into building his restaurant.
“Hopefully Grandpa comes down,” he says, referring to his father, Rick, who had the idea to open Bella Mia. “That’s it for me. That’s why I’m doing this.”
Jessica Banov: 919-829-4831; @JessicaBanov