The second I spotted Dennis Bellisario’s cornicello around his neck, I knew there was a story to be told. Meant to protect against the malocchio (“evil eye”), wearing a cornicello doesn’t just mean you’re superstitious and approximately-Italian. It also means you’re tethered to tradition and unwavering beliefs.
And for Dennis, his tradition and beliefs center around family recipe pizza.
As far back as Dennis can remember, the little restaurant at the corner of of Memphis and 49th in Old Brooklyn, Ohio has been a pizzeria. The red, white and green awning of authenticity on the front of the building. Before Dennis’ father opened Bella Pizza in the early nineties it was a joint called Mama Mia’s, opened circa 1953. Tradition runs deep here; unchanged.
And that’s also why Dennis doesn’t have slices, which, admittedly was what we were hoping for when we set foot in the place. Quality over quantity means not selling pizza that’s been sitting under a lamp all day, losing heat and frequented by flies. That’s what Dennis told us.
I suppose the Old Brooklyn neighborhood is not incidentally named after the Italian-immigrant hotbed borough of New York City. As a resident of a city that’s lost a lot of it’s Italian heritage, it was refreshing for your author to see this little corner of far southwestern Cleveland holding the line for the paisans. This was capped off by the familiar red, white and green flag flying right at the same height as Old Glory high above the dining room at Bella Pizza. Tradition.
Cleveland feels like Buffalo in that Buffalo feels like real-deal, no B.S. people. And so it goes in all the cities that make no mistake in being by a Great Lake. When the reservoirs run dry out west and the traffic becomes too much, you all can just come back home to the most abundant fresh water availability in the known galaxy. Space available, here in reality.
We decided to set our high-brow, elitist/urban, greens-driven appetites aside and eat like we would’ve back in the old neighborhood. Pizza and wings: go.
Like so much of the lifestyle of true Clevelanders, Dennis couldn’t change the recipe for the pizza even if he wanted to. Tradition. “If I changed even the slightest thing about it, people would be all ‘what’d you do?‘” he tells us. The meat and cheese are all from the same sources (Dennis has got a ‘guy’) for many years now. They way ya done it got ya where ya are so far, and is that so bad? Tradition. No sense changin’ now.
And so maybe Dennis charges a little more for pizza than… the other guy. “Quality over quantity,” he says, and sort of sneers at the idea of folks paying less to get more of something that isn’t very good. Which I can support.
The secret to the award-winning garlic Parmesan wings is using Pecorino Romano cheese. It gives the wings more zip than using Parmigiano alone. If you think Dennis is worried about me exposing his craft secrets , don’t think it. His garlic Parm wings are people’s choice winners for the best in Old Brooklyn three years running. The secret’s out and there’s only room for followers at this point.
Dennis with the hardware and the pennant
And there’s one final tradition that …sails… past them all. Decades of award-winning pizza and wings, and successful transition of ownership within the family, and little nuances and everything red sauce pales in comparison to Dennis’ proudest moment as an Italian;
Playing Christopher Columbus in the Columbus Day parade every year.
Yes, for many years now, Dennis Bellisario has proudly portrayed
the Italian of greatest historic prominence to Americans. The fingers extending towards the riches of the West Indies. The thousand-yard stare. Clevelanders can rest assured that the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria will find their way safely up Murray Hill Road to Holy Rosary Church under Dennis’ steady hand and watchful command.
Of note and possibly great import: belisario loosely translates as ‘swordsman’.