Article by Yana Samberg
Photography by Fitz
Lead photo of Chef and Owner Andrea DiCarlo at Andrea’s La Bella in Norfolk
On an overcast Sunday afternoon, Andrea DiCarlo reclines in a brown plastic patio chair around a table cluttered with plates and children’s toys. Wearing a Beastie Boys t-shirt, a thick gold necklace and black Yankees cap sitting slightly askew, DiCarlo looks like some elder version of a skate punk with a beard. This is where most Sundays find the chef/owner of La Bella in Ghent, on the restaurant’s patio surrounded by his family. On this particular Sunday that includes mom, Anna Alaimo, sister and brother-in-law Victoria and Joe Caruso, nephew GianLuca, wife Marti and daughters Veronica and Anna Bella.
For DiCarlo, who will celebrate ten years at the 22nd Street location in Norfolk this December, it starts and ends with family.
In 1990, Alaimo moved her family from New York to Virginia Beach. In short order she opened the original La Bella Italia on Laskin Road. DiCarlo, his sister and his brother Marco grew up working in the restaurant. Today there are two La Bellas still in DiCarlo’s family; the Ghent location and one in Red Mill Commons. DiCarlo runs the Norfolk restaurant, his mom and brother the Virginia Beach location. Until a year and a half ago, Victoria was also part of the family business.
DiCarlo says the main differences between the two La Bellas boil down to his mom’s place having a brick oven and differences in specials. But both La Bellas rest on the same foundation…fresh ingredients, passion, and giving food time to be what it needs to be.
“Our focus is on the food. Yeah, I have some signature dishes of my own, but (we’re founded on) the same principles…my mom taught us to give food time to cook, to develop. That is what she instilled in us,” he said, as he watched his daughters and nephew play around him.
“All my kids have a passion for cooking,” mama Anna said. “If you don’t have passion, nothing will come out good.”
Alaimo recalled that at 16-years-old Andrea (pronounced Ann-Dre-Ah) started to concentrate on cooking. He didn’t really like school so she gave him the same choice she gives all her kids: go to school or work in the restaurant.
What DiCarlo lacked in academic drive, he made up for in kitchen zeal. He was accepted into the Culinary Institute of America, but couldn’t afford to go. So he focused on the home front, a theme that resurfaces over and over in his career.
For DiCarlo it comes down to balance.
“I want to see how far I can push the walls of the box out and still balance flavors,” he said.
“Over the course of time I have developed my own instincts. Texture, smell, sight, all five of your senses come into play,” he said, when asked to describe how he approaches menu development.
He strives to balance his own need for creativity and keeping customers coming in the door. From a business perspective he knows he can’t sustain the former without the latter, but he is also keenly aware that if he doesn’t continue to push himself, La Bella will become just a job and that would be a dishonor to his mother’s ongoing legacy.
“There’s an internal war within me being happy (creatively) or just running a restaurant that makes the same food over and over,” he said. “It has to be more fulfilling for me. I question everything. I want the challenge.”
Wife Marti, herself a Johnson and Wales graduate and a veteran of the restaurant industry, says her husband is constantly reading and playing in the kitchen. When he starts developing a recipe, you can see the wheels turning in his head, she said.
“He will start drawing things. He has to be in a mindset,” Marti DiCarlo said. “It’s like a puzzle for him.”
And then the experiments begin. He will play with curry and fennel powders, wood chips, torches, and compression marinades, whatever strikes his fancy. Along the way he takes pictures of everything he makes.
“For me it’s 85% visual and the rest is flavor,” he said when it comes to creating a new dish. But DiCarlo never wants to lose the food to the technique. He insists that diners must be able to appreciate and differentiate different components within each dish.
“For me the focus is always on the quality of the food,” DiCarlo said.
Since becoming a father six years ago, DiCarlo has once again had to find the balance between restaurant and family life. La Bella is open seven days a week, so finding time off for family can be difficult, hence the weekly Sunday dinners. But being a parent, according to his family, has helped DiCarlo gain perspective.
“I think he is able to better roll with the punches,” his wife said. “Because of his faith and his family, it has helped him grow into a calmer and more hopeful person.”
Running a restaurant and having a family can be grueling work, but for the DiCarlos one doesn’t exist without the other.
“We love what we do and we love to cook,” Marti DiCarlo said. “And when we’re together, we try to be in the moment. That is how we make it work.”
Andrea’s La Bella is located at 738 W 22nd St, #7 in Norfolk’s Historic Ghent
For more on Andrea DiCarlo and Andrea’s La Bella, visit: labellainghent.com