Executive Chef Colin Auckerman is busy making a special for Taste of Downtown week: house-made fettuccine with local braised pork, local kale, smoked paprika and parmesan. If you only know Bella Luna for its incredible wood-fired pizzas, you’re missing out on some of the best pasta dishes in the Valley and Auckerman’s latest creation will likely join their ranks.
Owner Wade Luhn, has managed to create a warm and inviting farm-to-table restaurant and currently—in my opinion—the best restaurant in Harrisonburg. His attention to detail, consistently good food and drink, a laser-focused menu, and energy that radiates from every corner and employee also makes him one of the best restaurateurs around. Luhn’s vision didn’t stop when he opened Bella Luna Wood-Fired Pizza in December 2013. Year after year, Luhn keeps adding to the Bella “empire”—a description that makes him laugh.
But when Shank’s Bakery decided to shut its doors at the end of 2014, Luhn stepped in to the Water Street location across from Bella Luna and opened Bella Gelato & Pastries in the spring. Bread is baked daily, espresso and coffee feature locally-roasted beans, delightful pastries fill the case and the gelato is made by hand on site, using milk from Mount Crawford Creamery—a family farm just down the road.
“We are very fortunate to have a great partnership with Mt. Crawford Creamery. They provide us with natural milk from healthy, happy cows and it makes a distinct difference in our gelato,” says Luhn. Bella Gelato also helps out the main restaurant by creating most of its dessert menu.
Then last year, Luhn snatched up the former Shabby Love retail space across the spacious atrium from the restaurant to open Bella Banquets.
“We had been receiving countless requests from customers who wanted to rent Bella Luna for their parties and events and we just couldn’t do that within the scope of our original restaurant,” says Luhn.
The new banquet space is perfect for rehearsal dinners, company parties, and other gatherings, and can accommodate up to 120 people. Its gorgeous copper-topped bar, dedicated wood-fired pizza oven, and reclaimed barn wood tables continues the carefully-curated aesthetic of the restaurant. In addition, the new kitchen provides much-needed extra space for the 48-hour pizza dough proofing process. “We ran out of room in the beer cooler,” says Luhn.
But wait, there’s more. Luhn’s latest project, Bella Festa!, a beautifully-restored 1950s fire truck, has an on-board wood-fired oven that can be up and blazing in about an hour and four-tap draft beer system to bring the Bella experience to your wedding, office, or backyard—an idea that captivated Luhn.
“The idea of rolling in and using the truck’s vintage style is so consistent with the Bella brand, yet far away from the brick and mortar that is Bella Luna. It seemed pretty exciting to me,” says Luhn. “As much as I enjoy providing hospitality and creative cuisine at Bella Luna, I’m just as motivated to try to bring the same atmosphere to people in their personal venue. I guess that’s all a part of my overall vision of hospitality.”
You don’t need a private invitation, though. You can find the truck at Old Hill Cider in Timberville in May, Red Wing Roots Music Festival in July, Sunny Slope Farm for a wine festival in August, and maybe even at a jazz festival or brewery from time to time.
“We’ll be around,” says Luhn.
A restaurant, gelateria, banquet space and mobile truck is a lot on anyone’s plate—even for someone like Luhn who clearly has a natural gift for it. He says he is slowly learning to spend more energy finding other talented people to help make his vision a reality than doing it all himself. A hard task for someone who enjoys being very hands on.
“I’ve been fortunate to find a group of talented, conscientious and motivated people who share the Bella vision. To the extent that we’ve had success and been able to create something unique, it’s all because of their talents and the force of their labors. And they usually do it far better than I could have ever imagined anyway.”
At this point, I would argue with Luhn that “empire” is not all that much of a stretch. But where does it go next?
“This is all just a prologue for what I really want to do,” says Luhn. As a former farmer who would like to get back to his roots, Luhn wants to purchase ten acres of Shenandoah Valley bottom land and start growing produce for the Bellas.
What better way to bring a farm-to-table empire full circle.
Written by Kirsten Moore, a marketing professional, writer, food lover and serial entrepreneur. She and her husband have mad love for Downtown Harrisonburg and have made it home along with their three sons and two dogs.