By Pete Kennedy
“Everything tells a story,” Anthony Bellapigna said, as he gestured upward to a 360-degree mural on the cathedral ceiling of his restaurant, Ariano, in Media. “This is my grandfather here — he loved to make wine.”
Bellapigna, standing next to a compact spiral staircase on Ariano’s third-floor dining area, spoke about how his grandfather returned from war to find his beautiful home gone and his family living in a grotto — little more than a bricked-up hole in the side of a mountain — alongside their farm animals.
“The first thing he did the very next day, he started building a new home, digging the foundation,” he said.
Like his Italian grandfather, Bellapigna is a builder. The 49-year-old Southwest Philadelphia native literally built Ariano, from the 7,000-pound wood-burning oven to the multi-hued accent lighting illuminating the bottles behind the bar. Both the name and the inspiration for the restaurant come from his family’s hometown, Ariano Irpino, in Campania, Italy, which he first visited at age 13.
“I just fell in love with the towns and the food,” he said. “Every time I would go to Italy, the two things I’d eat the most were gelato and pizza.”
He grew up in a neighborhood — Our Lady of Loreto parish — where most adults were first-generation Americans, and the Italian language prevailed. The youngest of four children, he worked in the family construction business until a back injury around age 30 made him reconsider his career path. He’d had a side job working as a DJ since he was 18, often hanging out in the kitchen before his sets, which spurred his interest in the hospitality industry.
His first restaurant was Fellini Cafe — just the Media location — which he still owns with his cousin as a partner. He purchased the Ariano building, around the corner on Olive Street, in 2007 and opened in late 2010. Ariano comfortably seats 80 patrons, and he carries a staff of about 25, including some nieces and nephews.
Bellapigna’s commitment to authenticity has sometimes left patrons confused.
“When I first opened, people — because they’d never seen pizza from a woodburning oven — couldn’t understand why the cheese wasn’t melted,” he said. “I use a cheese that has a short shelf life, the freshest I can get. So that was shocking — they wanted shredded mozzarella.”
He makes his gelato from scratch, avoiding the powders and dyes commonly found in other restaurants. The mint gelato, for example, is naturally pure white, not green.
“When kids ask for chocolate chip mint, I make them taste it first,” said Cheryl Funk, who handles special events at Ariano. “We use fresh mint, so there’s a much different flavor than what you’re getting off the ice cream truck or even at an ice cream parlor.”
Funk describes Bellapigna as being constantly in motion. If the restaurant is short-staffed, he doesn’t mind bussing tables or washing dishes. He has a custom-built pizza truck — a green Ford F-350 with an unmistakable copper oven on the bed — that he takes to community events, often donating the service for veterans events and other worthy causes.
“Anthony’s amazing,” Funk said. “He’ll go anywhere, help anyone. He’s just so kind.”
Picking Media has been a dream come true, Bellapigna said, and he has watched the borough grow stronger and more vibrant over the years. He also lives in the borough with his wife of 18 years, Regina, a travel agent specializing in Italy and Tahiti.
In the months ahead, Bellapigna plans to focus on Ariano’s gelato offerings, incorporating liqueur-infused options now that the restaurant has transitioned from a BYOB to having a bar. He and his team are always experimenting with ideas for the menu, always building in one way or another.
It’s amazing what you learn in the business, Bellapigna said.
“If 20 years ago you told me, ‘You’ll be repairing your own cappuccino machines’ … These are things I never could imagine,” he said.
Leave a Comment
You must be logged in to post a comment.