New Haven, Connecticut
By Amanda Balagur
For Rose Foote, owner of Bella’s Café, it’s more than just a cliché to say that cooking is in her blood. Her grandparents maintained separate restaurants in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut, for decades: her grandfather came from Greece and established Nick’s Diner, while her grandmother came from Italy and established Paula’s Diner. Foote remembers watching her grandmother in the kitchen and helping her out by washing dishes. She also remembers that her grandfather insisted on feeding some of the local homeless because he felt that no one deserved to go hungry.
Foote’s parents took a more united approach. They established a restaurant together in 1962 in Trumbull, Connecticut, which is where they raised their kids. Their former customers still reminisce with Foote about her father Richie’s old-fashioned hot cinnamon donuts. Their restaurant was the only breakfast place in town, and Foote and her siblings often pitched in to help.
The funny thing is, Foote never really wanted to follow in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents. It wasn’t until she was about 25 years old and helping her mother out with a catering gig that she realized she wanted to be a chef. “Whatever was creative in me blossomed,” Foote remarks. “It was like a light bulb went off and I said, ‘Oh my god, this is what I want to do!’”
After a stint as an assistant pastry chef at Reader’s Digest, Foote worked on the line in the kitchens of several restaurants in southern Connecticut, learning to master her chosen trade. She was tough, like her grandmother, and enjoyed the challenge of experimenting with ingredients and creating new dishes. Eventually, she got tired of working for other people, and dreamed of opening her own restaurant someday.
Although Foote had never worked in New Haven, she often went there to dine. She was sitting on the patio of a restaurant on Whalley Avenue when she spotted the perfect space for her future café, right across the street. “I said, ‘I’d love a place like this,’” she remembers. Two years later, she bought the space she dreamed of owning and outfitted it with a functioning kitchen. In 2000, Bella’s Café was open for business for breakfast, lunch and brunch. These days, you’ll find a line out the door on the weekends for brunch, often with an hour-long wait.
Foote describes the food she serves at Bella’s as casual comfort food with a contemporary flair. She often does Southern-influenced cooking. Foote has always loved the New Orleans-style jazz brunch, and wanted to incorporate the food and atmosphere of the Big Easy into her own restaurant. “When I think of Southern, I think of breakfast. It’s comfort food,” she says.
The menu at Bella’s is seasonal and always changing. They serve breakfast all day during the week, including favorites such as Italian-style French toast and eggs benedict made with smoked pork. One of her best-selling items is shrimp and grits, served sizzling in a cast iron skillet on a wooden charger with a biscuit on the side. This dish was originally created as a special, but Foote added it to the regular menu based on demand.
And it’s easy to see why. The grits are made with cream, milk and butter – not water. They are heavenly, fluffy and rich. The base of the dish is chorizo smoked sausage sautéed with onion, combined with chicken stock, bay leaves and a few other ingredients. Shrimp get added to the chorizo base, and then the whole thing is spooned over the grits into the hot skillet, then topped with scrambled eggs. The result is a memorable dish that will spoil you for any other version of shrimp and grits on the eastern seaboard.
To find a biscuit she liked, Foote went from recipe to recipe. The version she makes is pure gold, as in: true buttery goodness. Her biscuits are high, with a tender interior that sops up the sauce of the shrimp and grits beautifully. But this biscuit can easily be eaten alone. It’s so moist and delicious, it’s like eating a stick of butter – in a good way.
The biscuit is often featured in specials, too, such as biscuits and gravy made with maple-pork sausage, or fried chicken on a biscuit. Bella’s recently featured a special with braised pork shoulder served over a biscuit with wild mushroom sauce, poached eggs and Tasso hollandaise. Foote’s inventiveness and love of breakfast food is obviously a major draw for locals, but she gets visitors from all over. Former students from nearby Yale and Southern Connecticut State University often reunite with their classmates at Bella’s over brunch.
While it may seem like a natural fit for Foote to own a restaurant, she doesn’t take what she does for granted. “I’m so blessed,” she says. “I’ve got so much joy. I love being here.” Once you taste Bella’s biscuits, you’ll feel exactly the same way.
Bella’s Buttermilk Biscuits
2 1/4 cups self-rising flour
1/2 cup cold butter
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
· Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
· Measure flour into a bowl.
· Cut the butter with a sharp knife or pastry blender into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Sprinkle butter slices over flour in a large bowl.
· Toss butter with flour, then cut the butter into the flour with a pastry blender until the mixture is crumbly and mixture resembles small peas.
· Cover and chill 10 minutes.
· Add buttermilk, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened.
· Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface; knead 3 or 4 times, gradually adding additional flour as needed.
· With floured hands, press or pat dough into a 3/4-inch-thick rectangle. Sprinkle top of dough with additional flour. Fold dough over onto itself in 3 sections, starting with 1 short end. Repeat entire process 2 more times, beginning with pressing into a 3/4-inch-thick dough rectangle.
· Press or pat dough down to 1/2-inch thickness on a lightly floured surface; cut with a 2-inch round cutter, and place biscuits, side by side, on a parchment paper-lined or lightly greased jelly-roll pan.
· Bake at 400° for 25 minutes or until lightly browned.
· Remove from oven; brush with 2 Tbsp. melted butter.
Amanda Balagur is a freelance food journalist based in Boston. She recently got a master's in gastronomy at Boston University with a concentration in food history, culture and communications. Amanda also works as a freelance marketing consultant specializing in strategy, content management, copywriting and social media at Balagur Marketing.