Bella Luna Reopens (with a Prohibition Mural)

Bella Luna at its new location on 88th and Columbus Avenue (photo by ©MRNY)

Bella Luna at its new location on 88th and Columbus Avenue (photo by ©MRNY)

During the dog days of summer in 1988, my friend who lived on 87th Street called and invited me to lunch. “There’s a brand-new Italian restaurant that just opened on 88th and Columbus,” he said, excitedly. “A piece of Tuscany in New York.” Earlier that year in April, Cher had won an Oscar for Moonstruck for her performance as an Italian-American in the throes of a lunar love spell—so a restaurant named Bella Luna seemed entirely in keeping with the times.

For nearly thirty years, Bella Luna has served traditional Italian cuisine from its little corner of Tuscany on the Upper West Side. “We’re a neighborhood community spot,” states Angie Noll who has managed the restaurant for the past three years.

Bella Luna dining room with its restored Prohibition-era mural (photo by ©MRNY)

Bella Luna dining room with its restored Prohibition-era mural (photo by ©MRNY)

As all New Yorkers know, neighborhoods change—and favorite restaurants disappear.  What true New Yorker hasn’t experienced that dispiriting sense of loss upon encountering the scrawled sign Lost Our Lease: We’re Moving and the brown-papered windows (where once there were café tables)? Suddenly, the city’s best French fries are but a distant memory, that vegetable pot pie with the extremely flaky crust now available only in the past.

Fortunately, some restaurants fare better than others. When the inevitable happened and the rent soared, Bella Luna looked across the street. On the opposite corner, the flower shop had closed and Bella Luna commenced its relocation into an 1893 building, layered with pentimento.

News service photo of Bill Pogue's Bar & Grill on 88th Street and Columbia, circa 1947

News service photo of Bill Pogue’s Bar & Grill on 88th Street and Columbia, circa 1947

Upper West Siders still recall the strudels and Hungarian scones when Grossinger’s Uptown Bakery claimed the space from 1981 through 1999—and prior to that, the corner was home to a well-known speakeasy and restaurant known as Bill Pogue’s Bar & Grill, which remained in residence for more than 30 years until 1968.

Prohibition-era mural restored by New York artist Mark Rutkoski (photo by ©MRNY)

Prohibition-era mural restored by New York artist Mark Rutkoski (photo by ©MRNY)

What hardly anyone recalled was the Prohibition-era mural that was rediscovered behind two walls during renovation. According to restoration artist Mark Rutkoski, the unsigned triptych that adorns the restaurant’s southern wall probably dates from Prohibition and was possibly restored once before in the 1960s. While debate continues about the specific locales depicted, all three panels are remarkably evocative of Central Park in spring, summer, and autumn.

Apart from the newly-unearthed mural, the reopened restaurant also features mahogany table tops with wrought-iron table bases created by Arturo Di Modica, the same artist who famously installed his sculpture Charging Bull in front of the New York Stock Exchange during a dark December night in 1989.

Bella Luna's newly-installed bar below the original eggshell marble chandeliers (photo by ©MRNY)

Bella Luna’s newly-installed bar below the original eggshell marble chandeliers (photo by ©MRNY)

Bella Luna owner Turgut Balikci has retained the marble eggshell chandeliers that emit a golden moon glow above the heads of neighborhood regulars who have returned for the restaurant’s simple Italian classics. The kitchen is helmed by Executive Chef German “Primo” Angelo who trained under Mario Zimbelli—Bella Luna’s chef of 25 years. Insalate include a nicely tangy Caesar and a vibrant Sicilian salad comprised of fennel, radicchio, capers, and olives dressed with lemon and olive oil.

Pan-seared trout Dijonnaise at Bella Luna ©MRNY

Pan-seared trout Dijonnaise at Bella Luna ©MRNY

The signature pizza from the traditional brick oven is dotted with wild mushrooms, onion, fontina cheese under a drizzle of truffle oil—all but guaranteeing umami heaven. One of the most popular entrées—and with good reason—is the pan-seared trout served with a lusciously rich Dijonnaise. Beautifully plated with broccoli, this is simple Italian fare done with elegance and taste.

A tartufo quartered like an apple is a decadent dolce, certain to please anyone with an ice cream addiction.  Similarly, the wild berry crostata is a reminder of summer’s bounty, as delicious as a picnic on the Great Lawn of Central Park.

Mixed berry crostata at Bella Luna ©MRNY

Mixed berry crostata at Bella Luna ©MRNY

As Lillian Hellman wrote in her 1973 memoir Pentimento, pentimento is “a way of seeing—and then seeing again.” With the reopening of Bella Luna and the rediscovery of a long-lost mural, New Yorkers have a new perspective on a familiar corner.

Mark Thompson

About Mark Thompson

A member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and New York Travel Writers Association (NYTWA), Mark Thompson is an editor, journalist, and photographer whose work appears in various periodicals, including Travel Weekly, Metrosource, Huffington Post, Global Traveler, Out There, and OutTraveler. The author of the novels Wolfchild (2000) and My Hawaiian Penthouse (2007), Mark completed a Ph.D. in American Studies. He has been a fellow and a resident at various artists' colonies, including the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Blue Mountain Center.

One Response to Bella Luna Reopens (with a Prohibition Mural)

  1. Joanne Rubino says:

    Oh sweet NY and such fond memories of you my dear, your talent and savoir faire of the finest of art and food, beautiful writing, exquisite photos and such, When I read this article and about the Bella Luna restaurant that had table legs made by Arturo di Modica, I had to share my story of meeting Arturo di Modica in Lander,Wyoming a few years a after Tony’s passing. Arturo knew Tony when they were young starving sculptors in NYC in the 50’s and 60’s, or so. We shared cappucino’s at the corner coffee shop with Monty Paddleford, the owner of Eagle Bronze Foundry, where Antonio and I had once worked, we were expert mold makers and such, and now, Arturo is having an enormous bronze made of two wild horses rearing on their hind legs to be delivered and set in Beijing. We shared stories, we shared a moment in our lives and in time. Thank you for sharing your beautiful life and moments in time, with words, with photographs, and with love…. La Bella Luna…

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