Fairfield Interview #1: Bella Cucina’s Alisa Barry

This is the first interview in our Fairfield Small Business Challenge series.

Good food is sacred. Alisa Barry’s Bella Cucina Artful Food, a line of artisan Italian foods and lifestyle products, reflects this motto. Alisa’s own journey into entrepreneurship, like her products, started with a passion and grew organically. In the interview, Alisa offers us a flavor of her history, her tastes, and her philosophy.

BP: What’s your favorite Italian dish?

The one that comes to mind–and it’s actually perfect timing, because we’re moving into fall–is roasted butternut squash or Parmesan ravioli with brown butter sage sauce. Every time I go to Italy in the fall, this is the first dish that I get, at a little café.

BP: That sounds delicious. Is there anything about it that really stands out to you that just makes it better than a lot of other dishes?

I think first of all, pasta in Italy is just amazing. Fresh pasta, of course. And then they take the sage leaves and sauté them with butter so the butter becomes flavored and a little bit nutty. They brown it just a little bit. So the sage flavors the butter. And you have this wonder crispy sage on top. And it just, there’s just something about it – the nuttiness of the squash and the butter and just the light, pillow-y pasta. What’s not to love about that?

BP: What is your least favorite food?

That is an interesting question. There are very few things that I will just turn away. But I did notice a theme that sometimes when people use truffle oil, either they use too much, or it’s not good quality. It’s such a pungent flavor, it can really overpower both the aroma and the taste of foods. You have to use it very judiciously…it’s like essential oils. If it’s not a good quality, you really don’t get the sort of restrained essence of what the flavor is truly supposed to be. So that’s one that came to mind as well.

BP: So if you were to counsel chefs and wannabe chefs on the proper use of truffle oil, what would you recommend?

Just a light touch, restraint. I think that’s just a great concept for any chef. Let the ingredients speak for themselves, just use restraint on the plate.

BP: You did your culinary training in California. What compelled you to move to Atlanta to set up shop?

I actually think that sort of sets the tone for my food. Bella Cucina, although the name is Italian, it’s definitely sort of not your traditional sort of Italian. What I do is really honor some of the traditional Italian roots, it brings the authenticity to what I do. But then it’s married with my California culinary training which is all about fresh ingredients and unique flavors and ingredients that you wouldn’t necessarily have in Italy. And also poetic license. Like an Italian would never make a pumpkin pesto or an arugula pesto. Well, they might make an arugula, but they’re really traditional in their sense. Which is what I really love about Italians.

I lived out in California for seven years and did my culinary training, then had a catering business, dated an Italian, worked at a winery, and I just found, you know, my family was back in Atlanta, and I’d been out there for so long, I was just ready for change. I’d been working really hard and just wanted to go back and reconnect with my family.

I was also planning on traveling for a while. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I thought I would just be passing through Atlanta. I ended up staying, that’s how I started this whole chapter. I stayed, and I really enjoyed being with my family and being in Atlanta. I started selling sandwiches out of a basket to the local neighborhood businesses, and then that turned into an opportunity to open a little café – a lunchtime café. That’s really how this line, Bella Cucina Artful Foods, got started. Everybody who came to the café was asking how they could take flavors of the sandwiches, the focaccia home with them. And so I started producing products. So I stayed.

BP: That’s a great story.

And it had an organic development. I never had a business plan, I just followed my passion. As the business matures, more strategic planning involved, but that’s how it started and developed and organically grew.

BP: It’s kind of like a dream story or a “follow your bliss” kind of story.

Yeah, I’m a real proponent of that. Give yourself permission to do what you love. Ask yourself often if you are you doing what you love. Sometimes it’s easy to get stuck doing what we don’t and not feeling good about it. That’s something I have to ask myself all the time. I ask, can I delegate it or put it aside if I don’t. I love supporting other people that have an idea and want to go out on their own and make something happen from their own passion.

Follow Alisa’s Small Business Challenge thoughts and adventures on her blog.