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California Dreaming 

Bella is a beauty

Making people feel at home, as well as having a staff who offers helpful suggestions about the menu rather than an autobiography, is typically only found in the most exclusive restaurants. So imagine my surprise to find these characteristics at a breezy breakfast place in the south Charlotte burbs.

Fortunately, the 47-seat Bella Trio, A California Fresco Kitchen is not only open for breakfast. It's also open for lunch, brunch and, at the recent request of customers, three nights a week for dinner. Owners Jeff Ritz and Lorena Castillo-Ritz opened their restaurant last April in that one-of-a-kind shopping center on Colony Road where the leasing agents did a tremendous job of bringing in locally owned restaurants. In this center are Oneo, Cilantro and Tomi. What a pleasure not seeing a collection of cookie cutter chain restaurants populate a new shopping center.

Castillo-Ritz performed the design work at Bella, creating a sunrise interior both bright and welcoming. The walls, which she faux finished with her girlfriends, are embellished with California posters and other wine country knick-knacks. The grill is completely open, and while the counter seats give the best view of the busy cooks, they can be watched almost as well from nearby tables.

Castillo-Ritz grew up in her parents' Mexican restaurants in San Francisco's Mission District. ("Yes, they warned me," she said.) The menu is influenced by the philosophy of Castillo-Ritz's hero chef, restaurateur Alice Waters, who started the movement toward restaurants serving locally grown, top quality produce only in season in her Berkeley, CA, restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971. Bella's menu is a hybrid of English, Italian and Latino, reflecting the Ritz heritage, and with a few Asian accents added. One of the Asian influenced dishes is the Chinese chicken salad with a peanut dressing and a hit of chili. Some San Franciscan dishes are also on the roster, such as a mean Joe's Special, a mix of egg, spinach, and ground beef and a "Classic Louis" salad with shrimp or crab.

The couple's professional backgrounds are in banking and fashion merchandising, but they seized the opportunity to stay in Charlotte and open a restaurant. Bella Trio is named for the three Ritz children and many of the dishes bear familial names. With Ritz in the kitchen is Filiberto Moran; Castillo-Ritz manages the front of the house.

On a white board near the front door are the daily selections, which reveal the kitchen's dedication to intensely flavored early day dishes. Consider, for example, thickly sliced house made cinnamon raisin focaccia French toast or a radiant frittata oozing with cheese.

One day, the scone du jour was mango. On another, a surprisingly wieldy sandwich of thinly sliced meatloaf tucked into focaccia with sauteed bell peppers proved sensational. Other surprises are buried deep in Bella's overstuffed menu. These satisfying touches are carried over to lunch. Here, the caramelized pear salad had flecks of gorgonzola and rested on a cache of baby greens and toasted pecans with a lively hit of mango fennel dressing. A dinner entree shows Castillo-Ritz's Salvadorian penchant for red beans and rice when paired with a grilled skirt steak. The only dish which didn't have us applauding was the sad cold breakfast side of stone ground grits.

Wine is served, but only Valley of the Moon, which is the vineyard behind Castillo-Ritz's brother's home in Sonoma. Korbel is on hand for the Mimosas, as well as some beers, a selection of coffee drinks, hot cocoa and fresh squeezed orange juice. Egg dishes range from $5 for one egg with a side to $8.75 for a Mediterranean scramble with prosciutto, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, basil and provolone cheese. Lunch entrees are about $8 and dinner entrees range from $9.25 for a burger to $15 for a rib eye steak with grilled vegetables and mashed potatoes.

Bella isn't one of those bouncy urban joints; instead, it's urbane. The service is mannered but neighborly. You may learn all the family names from the menu, but after a few visits, I bet the Ritzes will know your name as well.

Eaters Digest
Anyone who has passed the construction crews at the historic Lucas House in Elizabeth (formerly CiBi) has wondered what's going on. Owners Chef Greg Zanitsch, his parents Roger and Megan Zanitsch, and Manager Sara Scheidler plan to open The Fig Tree Restaurant in January. Zanitsch is a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute and worked at the Ritz-Carlton in Maui, Auberge de Soleil in Napa Valley and Prima Vista in Cincinnati. The New American menu will change seasonally and will feature locally grown ingredients in "interesting and wine-friendly" combinations. The Fig Tree will be open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday; call 704-332-3322 for details.

The Art Institutes (31 schools nationally) are hosting a Best Teen Chef competition, awarding $200,000 worth of scholarship prizes. First place wins a full tuition scholarship worth more than $30,000 to study culinary arts at The Art Institutes. Deadline is February 11, 2005. Entry requirements include a notebook with original recipes for a two-course meal, an entry form and a high school transcript. For more information, contact Susan Jetton at Art Institute of Charlotte: sjetton@aii.edu, 704-357-5963, or www.artinstitutes.edu/fin_aid/fin_aid_06.asp.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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