Situated in the bountiful area of the Central Valley is Merced, California, a vibrant city known for its blend of small-town charm, agricultural richness and cultural diversity. Though many might think Merced is just a town to make a pit stop on the way from San Francisco to bigger destinations like Yosemite, in the past several years this city has welcomed major draws.
From the historic El Capitan Hotel, a property that captures the frontier spirit of the American West with architectural elements inspired by the 19th century, and its fine dining restaurant, Rainbird, to Mainzer, a restored historic theatre dating back to the early 1920s offering a diverse lineup of live shows and events, retro-gaming area, and upscale American comfort food, Merced is truly an up-and-coming city, worthy of more than just the title of “gateway to Yosemite”.
With places like Vista Ranch, a 20-acre historical ranch and year-round destination for community events, local food and wine and locally made artisanal products and Corbin Cash, a 100+ years old multigenerational family farm that grows sweet potatoes and produces signature Sweet Potato Vodka and Sweet Potato Liqueur, Merced is a culinary destination with a lot to offer.
Few realize this more than Merced’s local business owners, particularly Giancarlo DiTullio and his wife, Anaid Martinez-DiTullio, the fairly new owners of longtime local favorite, Bella Luna. In 2021, the husband and wife duo acquired Bella Luna from its founder Chef Vinnie DeAngelo.
Using their expertise in the hospitality and culinary industries, they have sought to continue to honor the establishment’s storied past, while growing and evolving the Italian restaurant in to something great on its own.
Currently the menu features an array of appetizers that include classic arancini with mushrooms, truffle and mozzarella; crudo di tonno made with raw thinly sliced tuna and Calabrian chili; house made meatballs and more. There’s a nice selection of salads that range from the classic caprese to a shaved Brussels spout salad with a creamy honey dijon vinaigrette.
When it comes to wood-fired pizzas, they offer a great selection ranging from your traditional pepperoni and Italiano with house made sausage, to signatures like the gorgonzola fig with house made black mission fig preserves and cheeses topped with prosciutto and balsamic glaze or The Hitman with chicken, white sauce, garlic, mozzarella, pesto and sun-dried tomatoes.
From proteins like chicken marsala and braised short ribs served with polenta and Brussels sprouts to pastas that include a shrimp arrabiata, a bolognese with rigatoni and a crab ravioli with a pink vodka sauce, you won’t be leaving Bella Luna hungry. Of course, be sure to save room for dessert — the house tiramisu, cannoli or zabaione is just what guests need to finish the meal off right.
Bella Luna also recently launched an Aperitivo Hour offered at the bar and cocktail space from 4-6pm everyday they are open from Tuesday – Saturday. The entire menu is priced at $10, including six bites and 4 cocktails.
Moreover, they’ve launched a new beverage book elevating their cocktail program with a larger selection of signature and classic cocktails. Currently they feature a eight different Martini cocktails, one being the EVOO which utilizes a fat wash vodka with extra virgin olive oil. This book also features a table side experience section which includes two table side whiskey flights.
We chatted with owner Giancarlo DiTullio on Bella Luna, the Merced community, and more. Here’s what he had to say.
Talk about some of the changes you’ve made since you took over the former DeAngelo’s Restaurant. How are you honoring Bella Luna’s history in Merced as an institution, while continuing to grow and evolve the restaurant.
We took over ownership of Bella Luna in March 2021 after it had been in business for 25 years. The last 15 years as Bella Luna and prior to that, it had been DeAngelo’s Restaurant for 10 years, named after the chef and founder. Located in the heart of Downtown Merced, we are honoring the history by keeping the integrity of recipes, ingredients and cooking techniques used by the previous chef and owner.
Since taking ownership we rebranded Bella Luna giving her a persona. We redesigned the menus and website. While we have kept some recipes the same, we have introduced our own ingredients and dishes. Moreover, we have created a fantastic bar program, working with bar manager and long time Mercedian Billy Pedrozo. We focused on implementing systems both in the kitchen and on the floor to create an elevated experience here in the Valley.
How has Bella Luna been received?
We are very grateful that the community and staff welcomed us with open arms. Since opening in 2021 we truly have hit the ground running. We will continue to inspire, be inspired and push the envelope to bring more folks to Merced and see all of what the hospitality community has to offer here.
It was very important to continue the relationships built throughout the history. The farmers, vendors and local regulars that have been dining at Bella Luna for years. This restaurant is very important to this community. There is a buzz throughout the day while folks trickle in and out mingling with fellow Merced locals, as well as travelers or transplants alike.
Our culinary team is a large part of our success. We have a handful of staff that have been here for 10+ years and we want to make sure to pay homage to our kitchen staff. We also take pride in keeping the name regulars that have patroned Bella Luna throughout the years. We have also been able to make some other wonderful connections of our own.
Merced is going through a period of growth in terms of new restaurants, hotel properties and overall recognition in the culinary world. Talk about how Bella Luna fits in this.
At Bella Luna, we want to be leaders in the hospitality community here in the Valley and be part of the growth of the Valley’s food scene. The previous chef and owner, Vinnie, led the culinary scene here in Merced and we want to continue and push the envelope on what that means. To us, we love to make every guest feel they are number one priority.
To make our guests feel a connection to our food, to our drinks, to their experience and to our staff! We accomplish this by being our guests’ liaison, guiding them through the experience the moment they walk in the door. Through creating these moments with our guests, we build a genuine connection that fosters a loyal impression. With all of the dining choices our guests have, we want them to be truly delighted they have chosen us.
We are also working with the El Capitan Hotel and Merced College in beginning what is called the Hospitality Academy. This program gives students the inside scoop and introduction to the Hospitality Industry and the multiple careers to choose from within the industry. Working in a restaurant is a career to be proud of and teaching the younger generation about the industry is something we are very passionate about.
What is the inspiration for the menu — is it seasonal or does it stick to the Italian classics?
Guests will enjoy Italian food made with the best of what Northern California ingredients has to offer. The menu is inspired by Italian traditions and culture. Our dishes contain honest ingredients and aromas, using traditional cooking techniques. It’s “like Nona used to make!” for a delightful dining experience at Bella Luna. We want to focus on classics while drawing inspiration to implement twists on classics.
Our menu inspiration is classic Italian dishes and that of Italian immigrants. Our Sous Chef Valerie Basso comes from an Italian background and draws inspiration from this to create dishes. Our Kitchen manager Stephan Jones has been here 14-15 years and assists with dish creations bringing classic Italian dishes to life.
Merced has such an abundance of farm fresh produce —how do you incorporate this into your menu? Do you use local purveyors when sourcing ingredients?
Bella Luna takes pride in creating relationships with farmers in the area and has been nurturing these relationships for decades. We have been fortunate to develop great relationships with both the Marchini Farm and Live Oak Farms which are located in La Grande, just 20 mins south of Merced. Bella Luna uses both farms’ products in dishes featured on their menu.
The Marchini Farm specializes in Italian produce. They produce the largest production of radicchio in the world and were the first Italian immigrants to bring radicchio seed to the United States. We showcase many of their produce on our menu such as radicchio, castelfranco, fennel, figs, Italian Tuscan kale and cardone. The relationship with the families is important as they are not only farmers but also part of this community.
Is there anything in the works going in to 2024?
We want to continue to push ourselves and stay inspired. We are constantly coming up with new dish concepts and eventually would love to feature experiences within Bella Luna such as a take away Bella Luna pantry, Bella Luna Wine Club, offering wine dinners and possibly down the line offer a prix fix dinner option for guests if they’d like to stay off our core al a carte dinner menu.
In other news, Anaid and I have partnered with a friend of ours, Brie Wolf, and plan on opening a Pottery Studio called EarthWorks Clay Space located directly across the street from Bella Luna. This space will provide the community and Central Valley with a potteryn and art studio which will host classes, workshops, team building and more for folks to enjoy. This space is for the community and to continue to be a part of the vast art community that is here in the Central Valley.
Bella Luna and the upcoming EarthWorks Clay Space have also partnered up to host a Makers Market at Bella Luna featuring roughly 40-45 vendors every six to eight weeks on Sundays. The next one is November 19th. The one after will be hosted beginning February 2024.
This vendor fair is all about the folks that make things with their hands. We want to create a space where new and seasoned artists can come together and showcase their passion. We have food vendors and we have our bar at Bella Luna to create a very unique market experience.