Bella’s Junction Cafe
by Luke Osteen
I usually accept these restaurant assignments with a certain amount of reserve.
I know that sounds strange, because I’ve posited in these pages that this tiny Plateau has, per capita, the finest assemblage of eating establishments in the Western Hemisphere. Think of it, everything from little mom-and-pop diners to elegant four-star experiences, they’re all offered up with pride and their own glorious personalities.
But these are also “assignments,” chores to be dutifully crossed off an already too-lengthy list, experiences that must be pencilled in to days and evenings filled to bursting with interviews and edits and random meetings.
It tempers the excitement levels, but also ensures that I go into these restaurants with what Balzac called, “Clean hands and composure.”
All of that went out the window when Marjorie said that for August I’d be covering Bella’s Junction Cafe.
Now it’s possible that you’ve never heard of Bella’s (even though they regularly advertise in these pages – Hey, pay attention!). That’s because they’re at the far end of Scaly Mountain, just this side of the Great State of Georgia. It’s one of those Twilight Zone-ish corners of the planet where cell service drops out and GPS goes wonky and you get that little voice asking, “Where am I and where am I supposed to be?”
Well, maybe this will help – look for the 1940s-era Sinclair Gasoline Sign at the junction of Highway 106 and Old Mud Creek Road. Bella’s is the squat brown building right there at the intersection.
But here’s why I was excited to be heading to Bella’s, an excerpt from my visit three years ago:
“I arrived with a party of seven. Normally, I’m part of a couple or, at most, a three-top. That works for most of the restaurants in the area, which tend to cultivate intimate conversation and the careful sampling of their dishes, bordering on the precious and pretentious.
“Bella’s is an entirely different experience. It invites, encourages, lively talk and the joyful sharing of bites.”
And here, three years later, it maintains that same carefree atmosphere. Part of this is derived from the cozy nature of the place. It’s a small restaurant, and tables are jammed together and pulled apart with abandon to accommodate the traffic.
And part of this is derived from the presence of owner Gloria Carapazza, who oversees her dining room with a sunniness that’s irresistible. She’ll introduce herself, set you at ease and, if you’re so inclined, engage in a little conversation about you, herself, and the state of the restaurant.
I challenge you not to feel the stress of the day lift as the place works its magic on you.
In fact, I witnessed Gloria’s seductive abilities applied to a table with an extended family complete with kids and toddlers who were at that delicate position of overwrought-hungry-and-overly tired. In such a little dining room, the potential for explosions and the disruptions of meals at neighboring tables was vast. But she winked, cajoled, and joked this family into something resembling an Irish hooley – lost in the throes of delight, and heaps of fun to be around.
But let’s face it, this carefully maintained good humor wouldn’t be enough to keep a place this isolated open year after year.
And that’s where Bella’s co-owner Billy Ezechel comes into the picture. Billy’s the chef (the place is so small you can peer into the kitchen and watch him prepare your meal – in itself a dandy little show) and he maintains a menu of extraordinary depth, covering breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch.
We dined on Chicken Parmesan, a remarkably-seasoned New York Strip, and Eggplant Parmigiana. All delicious, all having the curious effect of halting our tabletop conversation as we dove into our dishes, while allowing the previously noted, “joyful sharing of bites.”
(It should be noted that Billy was part of the kitchen of Nick’s Restaurant, a Highlands institution that’s passed into the realm of legend.)
And Gloria once again makes an appearance in this narrative with our order of dessert. She’s the creator of our Key Lime Pie, Coconut Cream Pie, and Orange Rum Cake. You owe it to yourself to save room for dessert. Come on, you’ve earned it!
And one final note – bring cash! Bella’s doesn’t take credit/debit cards. I don’t know if they’ll make you do dishes, but don’t take the chance!
Reservations are a good idea – (828) 526-0803.