The lunchtime crowd ate steak and cheese grinders, calzones and slices of pizza at Bella Rosa Pizzaria Ristorante late last week. The new restaurant opened at 500 Monroe Turnpike, in the space formerly occupied by Gregory's, on Nov. 18.
It is owned by Monroe residents David Rodrigues and Thomas Feminelli. Feminelli, who does construction in lower Fairfield County and New York, renovated the interior with Rodrigues' help.
Rodrigues, a Masuk graduate, first entered the restaurant business at age 15, when he cleaned pots in the kitchen of Country Pizza on Main Street. He went on to work there for 20 years.
"After a year, I started making pizza," Rodrigues recalled. "I learned on the job."
Aside from cooking, Rodrigues said what he enjoys most about the restaurant business is dealing with all types of people. "You know a little about everybody," he said.
Once he learned every aspect of operating a pizza restaurant from his time at Country Pizza, owning his own had often crossed Rodrigues' mind.
"I always thought about it and just didn't have the right opportunity," he said.
When Gregory's restaurant went on the market, Feminelli helped Rodrigues to seize the opportunity.
"I saw this location and I had a little money in a money market account that wasn't doing anything," Feminelli recalled.
He initially resisted investing in such a business venture, but Rodrigues was someone Feminelli had grown to trust and respect.
"Dave's the best guy and the best cook," Feminelli said. "He's number one. I wouldn't have done it with anyone else."
Feminelli moved to Pepper Street in Monroe from Portchester, NY, last year and needed landscaping work done after closing on his house. The man who sold it to him suggested he call his new neighbor, David Rodrigues, who also has a landscaping business.
"I called him and asked for my grass to be cut and had not heard back," Feminelli said. "The next day my lawn was mowed."
Feminelli had not heard from Rodrigues for a month and went to Country Pizza for dinner one night.
"I said, 'There's the guy who cuts my grass,'" Feminelli recalled. "He was working in the kitchen."
Feminelli paid his landscaping bill that night and the two became good friends.
An old friend is also helping Rodrigues to succeed. Gus Valakas, who helped him get a job at Country Pizza years ago, has been doing some work at Bella Rosa.
What's in a Name?
The name Bella Rosa comes from the names of Rodrigues and his wife Sarah's two daughters Annabella and Rosa Maria. The couple also has three other children, daughter Emilia and sons Jacob and Albino.
Feminelli has a son, Tommy, and a daughter, Amanda. His late parent's, Al and Marie, are honored on Bella Rosa's menu.
The Chicken Torre Bruna is named after the Italian town Torre Bruna, where Feminelli's father Al grew up. The Bruzzesse — chicken sauteed with spinach in a white wine sauce and topped with mozzarella — is named after the Italian state, Abruzzi, where Torre Bruna is located.
"We incorporated some of my mom's recipes," Feminelli said.
His mother Marie's meatballs, escarole and beans, and pasta fagioli is on the dinner menu.
Rodrigues' mother Maria's flan can be found on the dessert menu.
Though he has strong roots at Country Pizza, Rodrigues said Bella Rosa's pies are not quite the same.
"I changed the pizza," he said. "It has a lighter sauce and a little crispier crust, which is a little thinner."