His parents owned and operated at least three quality eateries in downtown Jersey City before downtown became trendy.
“That was from the 1960s to the 1990s,” Rivera recalled.
Like his parents, Rivera looks for a wholesome family atmosphere for diners but maintains a level of chic that provides a comfortable place for a drink, drawing young as well as middle-aged patrons.
In some ways, the story of Bella Sorrellas is a little like the chicken-and-egg story. When Rivera purchased the place in 2009 intending to open a quality restaurant, family obligations forced him to open only the bar at first.
He had long eyed Just Sonny’s well-established chef, Leonardo Compi, to provide the food, and eventually, when family issues were solved, he managed to get him.
Chef Compi worked at Sonny’s for 25 years, and provides much of the complicated food combinations that make dining at Bella Sorrellas a treat. Compi’s genius is in bringing flair to classic dishes, making extraordinary what would be ordinary in other hands, something rich with complex textures and tastes that delight and surprise unsuspecting diners.
Coming back to the family business
Although Rivera said he absolutely loves what he does, he was a typical teen, vowing not to get into the family business. He went to school and eventually found himself the dispatcher at Christ Hospital, when he started to remember just how good it felt back in the restaurant business and he decided he wanted to live that life again.
His father, when he heard about Rivera’s plans to buy his own place, told him not to do it, and when he couldn’t talk Rivera out of it, gave him words of advice.
“Be prepared to work hard and put in long hours,” Rivera recalled.
Having worked in his family’s restaurants since he was knee high to a grasshopper, Rivera already knew this.
But he was in love again with a way of life he apparently had been raised to live, and once he got back in the business, he knew it was the right thing.
Drawing from all over
A 7 on a Tuesday night, Bella Sorrellas had a number of dinner patrons, some from Bayonne and Jersey City and others from down state who had heard about the place via word of mouth.
Routinely, the place brings out some local political people such as former Mayor Jerramiah Healy, former Jersey City Councilman Peter Brennan, and state Senator Sandra Cunningham.
Local officials including Bayonne Councilman Ray Greaves stop in for a sip or a bite from time to time, Rivera said.
But Bella Sorrellas is much more than a political hangout; it is the kind of place you bring your mom on Mother’s Day, your date, or your high school friend for his birthday. With a comfortable bar on one side—and a window looking onto the dining area—the place is good for a quick lunch, an after-work drink, or a full dining experience.
The dining area has 15 tables with four seats each, which allows for high volume, but it does not feel overcrowded. A movable arrangement accommodates larger groups or even parties.
The service is remarkable. The staff is polite but never intrusive, arriving at your table when you need them, but never overbearing.
Back to basics
There’s a special dinner menu, which, Rivera said, offers dishes that could eventually find their way to the regular menu. We decided to stick to the regular menu to get an idea of what patrons can expect. We ordered two appetizers, eggplant rollatini and mussels in red sauce.
The mussels, piled high on an egg-shaped plate, were sweet, plump and savory, with just enough garlic to give them a snap. The sauce, not traditional at all, has a taste that lingers—not too sweet or too hot, and not overly laden with garlic.
The house salad was almost too pretty to eat, basic fair with oil and vinegar that offset the more complex flavoring of the other dishes.
The portions for all the dishes were generous.
Contrary to its name, the rollatini came flat, not rolled, and seemed more like a slice of lasagna. The flavors were well-combined flavors, so that no one spice stood out. The eggplant had a great texture, not too greasy and not overwhelmed with sauce.
For entrees, we decided on Shrimp Scampi and Chicken Cacciatore. The shrimp came with a house salad and a remarkably tasty rice Milanese, seasoned with prosciutto and parsley. The butterfly shrimp had a buttery, lemon sauce. The chicken was served with mushrooms and onions in a marinara sauce. The white-meat chicken was very tender and well seasoned.
For desert, we went traditional, trying the Italian ricotta cheese cake, partly because the menu said it was made on the premises. This differs from what most people think of as cheesecake because it is made with ricotta, not cream cheese, so it has a rougher texture and a more interesting flavor.
Good food priced reasonably
The dinner menu includes a variety of appetizers, salads, pastas, chicken, veal, steaks, and seafood.
The prices are extremely reasonable, especially considering the high quality of the food.
Appetizers range from $5.95 for pasta fagioli to $10.95 for a shrimp cocktail.
Besides the complimentary salad that comes with all the family-style entrees, the menu also has salads from $5.95 for Tomatoes Ala Napetano to $14.95 for cold Italian antipasto for two.
Similarly, pasta dishes range from $10.95 for pasta marinara to $14.95 for linguini with clams.
Chicken dishes range from $16.95 for chicken francese to $18.95 for chicken rollatini.
Veal dishes, and there are a host of them, run about $17.75, while steak dishes tend to be the priciest starting at just under $24.
Seafood dishes run from $17.95 to $25.95.
The lunch menu—served Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m—offers a smaller choice, but also less costly selection for appetizers, salads, cold and hot sandwiches, pizza, and buffalo wings.
The restaurant is open for dinner until 9:45 Tuesday through Thursday; 10:45 on Friday and Saturday and from 1 to 9 p.m. on Sunday.
The full-service bar is open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday; 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Saturday; and 1 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sunday.
Happy hour is from 4-7 p.m. Tuesday to Friday.
Bella Sorrellas is at 1020 Broadway at the corner of 50th Street. For reservations or more information call (201) 455-8844 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.