Valley Chef Vinnie DeAngelo is greeting the holiday season with good cheer, and he’s looking forward to the New Year when his signature restaurant location on Main Street in downtown Merced will be celebrating its 25th year in business.
It’s an amazing accomplishment in the competitive food and beverage industry, and a sometimes tough local market; however, it’s also a testimony to one man’s culinary vision for a community he loves dearly.
“Merced is a great place and we are just one example of that,” DeAngelo says. “We have been around for years, and people come to depend on us, and we depend on the local customers. Businesses like mine forge partnerships throughout the years. Basically, all the services we offer — the restaurant, the bar, catering and banquets — are the reasons why we have been part of the community for all these years. Many, many people have celebrated special occasions with us. We have catered countless events. And we hire local employees, and we buy locally sourced food … It’s all local.”
DeAngelo’s heritage is 100 percent Italian. His American-born father was a chef in New York and Florida, and his mother was an immigrant from Naples. The younger DeAngelo eventually graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After school and training, he followed a good friend out to San Diego and he never looked back east.
He settled in Merced where he started DeAngelo’s Italian Restaurant in 1995, a few weeks before Mother’s Day. The location had been known as the old Wine Cellar, but the spot had been closed for a few years.
DeAngelo brought new life and energy to the place, and he had the support of the local Italian community, including Joe Pia, another businessman who was running Stevens Men’s Wear at the time. Others would be there for DeAngelo over the years, including local farmers Joe Marchini and Mike Gallo. They hired many employees that first year, looking to form a tight-knit professional staff. Two members of the original restaurant staff are still with the company today.
DeAngelo’s mission statement was simple: “Bring quality food and service to Merced, and provide the town with something they have never experienced before.”
The restaurant grew and transformed over the years. Bellini’s Bar was added and became a popular hangout. About a decade ago, a devastating fire closed the downtown location for a time. But without skipping a beat, DeAngelo opened up another location while he built up the original from the ashes.
The result became known as Bella Luna Bistro and Bar. The modern Italian restaurant features an amazing kitchen equipped with a bread oven imported from Italy, and an authentic Marsal pizza oven from Brooklyn. There is street-front seating and a separate bar with wine barrel accents and scenes from Lucca, Italy. The ample dining room is cushioned in the middle of the establishment that also features two banquet rooms.
Not to be outdone, DeAngelo added a custom food truck to his arsenal. In recent years, the Bella Luna food truck has serviced events from Bakersfield to San Jose. It can be used to cater a small gathering of 40 to 50 guests to events that bring up to 1,000 people. Bella Luna also collaborates with the nearby Gateway Gardens venue for private parties of up to 250 people.
Says DeAngelo, “Give us a call, or go to our website, and click on the “get a quote” feature, and we will set you up with one of our specialists who will create an event just for you.”
Meanwhile, Chef DeAngelo has been racking up the awards and accomplishments. He won three, consecutive First Place awards at the California Food Expo in Fresno, and in 2018, he took the event’s Peoples Choice award sponsored by the Food Network and celebrity host Simon Majumdar. His “Valley Chef” logo is being trademarked and he has used it for many community food expositions, and reports in the local media. Currently, a deal is in the works to bring the Valley Chef to a local TV show.
As the holiday season approaches, Bella Luna is expanding its catering and banquet service with expanded menus featuring more variety. This will include a Dickens Christmas theme menu with roast turkey, baked ham, prime rib, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry, and all the other traditional fixings.
“Of course, I have to oversee everything,” says DeAngelo. “My heart is in the kitchen. Everything starts there. I have employed and trained many young chefs who have gone on to culinary school and great careers. I’m very proud of that.”
And there’s no stopping DeAngelo. Even after a recent hip surgery — one that would have sidelined a normal person for a week or two — the chef was back cooking and directing staff after only a few days of rehabilitation.
“I have no choice in the matter,” he says. “I’m the leader, and I have to be here. … The hardest thing about a restaurant is you have to be good every day. You have to be good for every customer. That’s a hard thing to do. Running a restaurant is a tough business. …
“We make our own bread every day. We make our own ravioli and lasagna. Our own sauces and dressings. Everything is made from scratch with food from local farmers. How many places can say that? … I can tell you we are doing our best to provide quality food and service. That’s always been the focus of my business. … Always … I mean that’s what it’s all about.”