It's rapidly occuring to me that all the best restaurants are in Cary rather than Chapel Hill or Durham -- Udupi, Suchi, La Farm Bakery, Grand Asia Market Cafe, Waraji, Taqueria Chicho...and now Bella Napoli (formerly Assaggio). Why should this be? Why is there more that's good to eat in Chatham Square Mall than in all of Chapel Hill? It's a mystery. Academics are supposed to be discerning critics, but apparently they are satisfied with a piece of over-grilled salmon on a pile of wilted spinach. Fortunately we are able to shoot down to Cary relatively quickly on I-64.
All former northeasterners should take note of Bella Napoli. It will remind you of the kind of a immigrant-run Southern-Italian eateries that are the age-old backbone of the food culture in Boston, Providence, New Haven, New York, and Philadelphia. The chow is nothing fancy and nothing clever -- marinara and marsala fare, with sides of pasta -- but it has the earthiness that I've missed since moving South. The wife and I shared housemade sausage with broccoli rabe, fried calamari, veal parmigiana, and tiramisu -- a meal of cliches, admittedly, and yet everything was piquant and hearty. The calamari was perfectly crunchy and not at all chewy. The rigatoni was properly al dente. The veal was topped not with some plasticene low-moisture mozzarella, but with rich fresh mozzarella that for all I know may have been housemade. The tiramisu was made with mascarpone rather than with whipped cream. There was nothing to complain about except maybe the complimentary bread, but then I long ago stopped expecting decent bread with my dinner. Crappy bread is simply one of the prices of modernity.
The total bill was about $60, which I thought pretty reasonable given the mountain of food we ate. Portions are largish. We could have gotten by with one appetizer, two pasta entress, and one dessert, for say, $40 or $45.
The mid-range Italian restaurants I've tried otherwise -- Pop's, 411 West, Auroura, Panzanella, etc. -- leave me cold. They are simultaneously fussy and bland. Many ingredients, not much punch. It was only when the broccoli rabe arrived in a veritable cloud of garlic fumes that I realized the missing ingredient at these other restaurants: unabashed flavor.
Here's Bella Napoli's website. The restaurant is listed under it's old name, Assaggio.