By Joanna Morelli | Photos by James Chung
From the soil to the racks of the 900-degree wood-fire oven, Bella Luna lets you know exactly what your food is and where it came from.
Wade Luhn, owner of Bella Luna, saw the opportunity for a family-friendly business that would serve quality wood-fired pizzas in the downtown area of West Water Street, next to Cuban Burger. He had always liked the idea of owning a pizza restaurant, but the concept hadn’t materialized until he looked at the property of what used to be the old livery building in the fall of 2012. Luhn’s vision branched apart from what many would consider stereotypical “Italian” food.
“We’re Neapolitan-inspired; we never planned to be truly an Italian restaurant,” Luhn says. “Pizza from Naples got its start from pizzaiolas in Naples trying to find whatever was regional. Neapolitan pizza is stuff that is sourced locally and reflects the character of the region.”
And Bella Luna does exactly that. The curd used to make mozzarella cheese and the pork used to make sausage are from local sources; the chefs make the cheese and sausage themselves. Even the pastas are made by the chefs. All pizza toppings, from basil (Harrisonburg) to mushrooms (Afton) are locally grown.
This is the reason why Bella Luna’s menu is concise: Chefs can be flexible and alter the dishes being offered. Whatever is in season is what will be featured.
Colin Auckerman, executive chef of Bella Luna, leads the process in crafting the menu.
“I like to get input from everyone in the kitchen; we kind of sit down and talk about what’s in season, what we can get and create a combination from there,” Auckerman says.
Bella Luna’s menu is not a hindrance but rather a stepping stone to its true mission: to remain local, casual and welcoming.
“I think that the era of a 10-page menu is drawing to a close,” Luhn says. “I think there are a growing number of people who are interesting in freshness, which is really hard to achieve when you have that huge menu. It also allows us to focus on the quality [of the food].”
Even the drinks are centered upon the local. Out of the 12 beers on tap, eight to 10 are from the Atlantic region, ranging from New York to Georgia. Bella Luna also tries to feature more drinks with bourbon, a whiskey that is popular in the region, Luhn says.
Bella Luna centers on the theme of bringing the public into the process of its dining experience. Not only can guests know where their food is from, but they can also watch as their food is being prepared. In the center of the dining room is the wood-fire oven itself, sectored inside a stone oval that chefs roam about busily.
Guests can ask about the process of preparing their food and watch the spectacle unfold.
Auckerman mentioned that the fact that guest can see him cooking is of no issue to him.
“I like it quite a bit actually … You put something together and you see it go out and see the look on people’s faces when they get the food. It’s really rewarding,” Auckerman says.
Luhn’s past community-centered endeavors are what led him to what is Bella Luna.
Before becoming a businessman, Luhn was a small farmer who followed the community-supported agriculture structure of farming. The 240 subscribers to his farm in the Berkshire Mountains of New England would come by weekly and take whichever products of his they needed; subscribers pay ahead for their shares. With such a steady and set client base, it was easy to become friendly with them.
“I loved that I would be able to see people at the farm and interact with them every day about the food I was growing,” Luhn says.
Luhn wishes he could farm again, but the prices of land in Harrisonburg are steep.
“I would rather be a farmer but I haven’t been able to; the next best thing is a farm-to-table restaurant,” he says.
Luhn used to co-own a restaurant in Staunton called The Mockingbird. The restaurant focused on the aesthetics of the dining experience. There was often live music to watch; guests would enjoy eclectic Americana food while watching. Luhn hopes to add this same aspect to the dining experience of Bella Luna.
“We want to host events, films, speakers and start doing some things on water in the Valley and how it’s used,” Luhn says.
Phil Howard, a bartender at Bella Luna, as well as Blue Nile, said that although the restaurant features a bar, it is a very different vibe from his other job.
“It’s definitely dinner-centered. Mostly I see folks that are having drinks while they’re waiting [for food] or eating at the bar; mostly everybody is happy,” Howard says. “This is lighter. People are here to have dinner and have a good time.”
Bella Luna will only grow from its opening date on Dec. 11, 2013. Luhn says students from JMU and EMU have been frequenting the restaurant, especially after winter break; he wants the restaurant to appeal to all age groups.
The interior of the restaurant will change as time goes on, as well. The main section of the restaurant, blocked off by glass walls, will be an indoor-outdoor seating area; the restaurant’s large arching doors will be opened in warmer weather, hopefully with a skylight and fountain added to the area. Entertainment will be more common, and what used to be an unrecognizable antique building will now be a gem in Harrisonburg’s downtown.
Although Bella Luna’s plans are ambitious, Luhn hopes to keep the restaurant singular and original.
“I’m happy to try to make this place successful,” Luhn says. “I want to make this place a true local place before a franchise.”