How to celebrate the holidays Italian style, from Bella Cucina’s Alisa Barry

Have a bella festa con tutti
Alisa Barry
Photograph by John E. McDonald

When I met Alisa Barry 18 years ago, she was launching her Italian-inspired pantry products business, Bella Cucina, and my family had just started making annual summer treks to the Ligurian coast—where we now own a second home. Needless to say, we Italophiles bonded immediately.

It’s no surprise that a holiday gathering at Alisa’s historic 1910 home feels closer to the Mediterranean than to its bustling Midtown setting. The cottage’s elegant yet rustic vibe owes much to her counterpart in life and business, designer Smith Hanes. His decor for the Optimist earned him major national recognition (Esquire’s Best New Restaurant of 2012), but he has prominent food-and-beverage clients all over the country. Recent local projects include Bellina Alimentari at Ponce City Market, Le Fat bistro, and Brash Coffee in the Westside Provisions District.

Alisa Barry
The Lawrence’s Taylor Kapplow shakes up a signature cocktail

Photograph by John E. McDonald

The home Smith and Alisa share is full of snug, intimate spaces with soaring ceilings. Each room’s monochromatic palette is layered with earthy textures, family heirlooms, and vintage keepsakes. For a holiday celebration that I was privileged to attend, the duo enlisted dear friend and master stylist Thom Driver to fill their moody, romantic dining room with fragrant rosemary branches, magnolia leaves, evergreen fronds, berry garland, and rows and rows of glowing candles.

Dinner started with a signature cocktail: Alisa’s favorite, Beginner’s Luck, crafted by Taylor Kapplow of the Lawrence, which is in their neighborhood. The meal began with (what else?) a luscious antipasti platter served on a well-worn wooden board. The artful still life of colorful sweet and savory combinations included prosciutto, roasted peppers, fresh and roasted figs, artichokes, Pecorino cheese, burrata, Bella Cucina olive pesto, and Pane Rustico flatbread—followed by oysters with preserved lemon mignonette.

By candlelight, Alisa and Smith then served a roasted fennel and watercress salad infused with blood oranges, and heaping plates of crispy porchetta, roasted lady apples, sage potatoes, and salsa verde. They wrapped up the feast with affogatos of homemade panforte ice cream paired with almond cake. Smith poured espresso over the ice cream using his great-aunt’s antique English teapot—an heirloom he cherishes and uses as often as possible. With the couple’s close friends and favorite Italian recipes, the evening was truly a bella festa con tutti.


The menu

Beginner’s Luck

Grape schiacciata, cheeses, salumi, dried fruits, condiments, nuts

Oysters with Prosecco and preserved lemon mignonette

Blood orange, roasted fennel, and watercress salad

Porchetta with roasted lady apples; wild oregano and sage potatoes

Panforte affogato with almond cake

Alisa Barry
Signature cocktails were served in vintage glasses

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Beginner’s Luck
Makes 1 serving

• ½ ounce lime juice
• ¾ ounce grapefruit juice
• ½ ounce honey syrup (1 part honey dissolved in 1 part hot water)
• 1 ounce gin
• 1 ounce Sancerre wine (or Sauvignon Blanc)
• 4 basil leaves
• Grapefruit disk and basil leaf, for garnish

Shake first 6 ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Garnish with grapefruit disk and basil leaf.

Blood Orange, Roasted Fennel, and Pomegranate Salad*
Serves 8

Blood oranges and pomegranates are available only during a few short winter months. Their gorgeous red color and sweet, aromatic flavor make them worth the work it takes to segment and seed them. This dish is just as delicious year-round with other oranges. Choose the sweetest ones for the best flavor. In summer I like to slice the fennel paper-thin and serve it raw in the salad, adding pitted and chopped Kalamata olives for extra flavor and texture in place of pomegranate seeds.

• 2 heads fresh fennel bulbs
• ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
• 2 teaspoons salt, divided
• ¼ plus  teaspoon pepper
• 6 to 8 blood oranges, depending on size
• 1 tablespoon sherry wine vinegar
• 4 ounces mache lettuce or spring mix (approximately 6 to 8 cups)
• cup pomegranate seeds

Alisa Barry
Photograph by John E. McDonald

Preheat oven to 350°F. Cut the fennel into quarters and remove the tough core. Slice the fennel quarters lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick strips. Place on a sheet pan and toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and  teaspoon pepper. Roast in the oven for about 20 to 30 minutes, tossing occasionally, until the fennel is soft but not browned. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

With a sharp paring knife, remove a portion of the top and bottom of each orange. Place the orange upright on one of the cut ends. Starting at the top of the orange, trim away the peel and pith. Remove any additional white pith as needed. Squeeze the juice from the cut peels into a bowl and discard the peels. Over the same bowl, divide the orange into segments and set them aside, removing the connective membrane and capturing any juice in the bowl. To make the vinaigrette, mix the juice with the vinegar, 1 teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil until blended. Set aside until ready to serve.

To assemble the salad, place about ¾ cup of salad greens on each plate. Divide the fennel and blood oranges evenly among all the plates, and place on top of the greens. Top with pomegranate seeds and spoon over just enough vinaigrette to coat.

Serve with a selection of local cheeses and crostini (thin, toasted bread rounds). My favorite cheeses are Condor’s Ruin, Garretts Ferry, and Rivertown—all from Many Fold Farm. To make crostini, I like to use fennel sultana bread from Star Provisions.

Alisa Barry
Alisa prefers West Coast Kumamoto oysters, as they are small, delicate, and an elegant, bite-sized taste. Available at Star Provisions.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Oysters with Prosecco and Preserved Lemon Mignonette*
This recipe makes enough mignonette for about 24 oysters.

• 1 tablespoon finely minced preserved lemon
• 1 tablespoon finely minced shallot
• 1 tablespoon Champagne wine vinegar
• 3 tablespoons Prosecco Italian sparkling wine
• Pinch of sugar
• ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
• 2 cups coarse sea salt
• Oysters, 2 to 3 per person
• Chervil leaves for garnish, optional

To make the mignonette, remove and discard the pulp from the preserved lemon and rinse well to remove any excess salt. Mince the lemon peel finely, but leave enough texture for color. Mince the shallot and add to a bowl with the lemon. Add the vinegar, Prosecco, sugar, and kosher salt. Whisk until blended and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before serving so flavors can integrate.

Mound ¼ cup sea salt on each plate. Carefully open the oysters, checking for any pieces of shell fragments. Arrange the oysters with the bottom shell intact on top of the salt. Top each oyster with the mignonette. Garnish with a small leaf of chervil.

Note on oysters: I am a big fan of West Coast Kumamoto oysters, available at Star Provisions. They are small, delicate, and an elegant bite-sized taste for a first course.

Note on preserved lemons: You can easily make your own preserved lemons, but they take time to mature before using. Bella Cucina makes preserved lemons, which are available at select Whole Foods stores. You can also substitute with chopped lemon zest if preserved lemons are not available.

Alisa Barry
Photograph by John E. McDonald

Porchetta with Salsa Verde and Wild Oregano & Sage Potatoes*
Serves 8 to 10

• ½ cup each chopped fresh herbs: Italian parsley, sage, rosemary, oregano
• 1/3 cup chopped fresh garlic cloves
• ¼ cup fennel seeds, toasted and ground
• 4 tablespoons kosher salt
• 3 1/8 teaspoons cracked black pepper
• 4 to 6 pounds pork belly (preferably with skin on)
• 3 to 4 pounds pork loin
• 8 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon dried oregano
• 1 tablespoon dried sage
• 1 tablespoon capers, drained and roughly chopped
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice and zest, chopped

Preheat oven to 475°.

To assemble the filling for the porchetta: Mix all of the chopped herbs and garlic in a bowl. Toast the fennel seeds in a sauté pan over medium heat just until you can smell the scent (about 1 minute). Grind the fennel seeds in a spice grinder until they are a fine powder. Combine the fennel, 2 tablespoons kosher salt, and 2 teaspoons pepper with the herb and garlic mixture. Divide the herb and garlic mixture into two bowls: two-thirds for the porchetta and one-third for the salsa verde.

On a clean cutting board, place the pork belly skin side up. With a sharp knife, score the skin diagonally from top to bottom and left to right, making diamond-shaped cuts just deep enough to penetrate the surface of the skin.

Turn the pork belly over so the scored skin is on the cutting board. Evenly spread half of the herb and garlic mixture reserved for the porchetta on the belly. Butterfly the pork loin in half lengthwise, so it opens up like a book. Place on top of the pork belly and spread the remaining half of the herb mixture on the loin. Cut 8 to 10 long pieces of butcher string and slide under the skin of the pork belly from top to bottom. Starting at the end closest to you, roll the pork belly and loin away from you until it looks like a tightly formed jelly roll. Starting at either end, tie the pork securely with the butcher string so the roll stays intact during cooking. Place the rolled pork on a baking rack and place on a sheet pan. Top the pork with the remaining salt and pepper to season, and place in a preheated oven. (Make sure the oven is cleaned; otherwise it may start to smoke at this high temperature.) Cook for about 30 minutes, or until skin begins to crackle and brown. Turn the oven temperature down to 350° and cook for an additional hour and a half, or until the center of the pork reaches 140°. Move the pork onto a cutting surface to rest, and pour the pan juices into a bowl.

To prepare the potatoes, peel them whole, then slice crosswise into ¼-inch slices from top to bottom, being careful not to cut all the way through so the potato remains whole. Place the potatoes on a sheet pan and drizzle with the olive oil. Mix the oregano and sage with 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Sprinkle on the potato. Place potatoes on sheet pan and roast for about 40 to 50 minutes until lightly browned and tender. The timing will depend on the size of the potato, but the potato should be browned and crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.

Assembling the plate:
To make the salsa verde, add the remaining herb and garlic mixture, capers, lemon juice and zest, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper in a bowl. Add the pan juices from the pork and stir until blended. Add more olive oil, as needed, to desired consistency and flavor. Slice the porchetta and serve with a spoonful of the salsa verde and potatoes.

Alisa Barry
Smith poured espresso over the ice cream sing his great-aunt’s antique English teapot.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Panforte Ice Cream Affogato with Italian Almond Cake*
Serves 8

Almond cake is one of my favorite dessert recipes (and so easy!). I’ve adapted this one from the Chez Panisse Desserts cookbook. I like to add locally milled almond meal for flavor and texture, but you can substitute with all-purpose flour if it’s not available. You can also make it gluten free by using all almond meal instead of flour. It will be denser, but nonetheless delicious! The beauty of this dessert is that it can be made a day ahead of time; the flavor actually improves as it sits.

To make the almond cake:
• 7 ounces almond paste
• 2/3 cup sugar
• ½ cup almond meal
• 1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
• 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
• 6 eggs
• ¾ cup all-purpose flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• ¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 325°.

In a food processor, blend the almond paste, sugar, and almond meal until finely ground. Add the butter and vanilla. Process the ingredients until creamed. Add the eggs one at a time, with the processor running, until the batter is smooth. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add flour mixture to the food processor and mix just until combined.

Pour the batter into a buttered and floured 8-inch springform pan. Bake for 1 hour or until toothpick is dry when inserted. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

To make the ice cream:
• 1 ¼ cups whole milk
• 2 ¼ cups cream
• 1 ¼ cups of sugar
• 1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
• 6 egg yolks
• 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
• 4 ounces panforte (an Italian sweet dessert “bread” found in specialty stores or online)
• 2 cups freshly brewed coffee (I like Brash coffee beans, a local favorite roasted and sourced sustainably by founder Matt Ludwikowski.)

In a small saucepan, warm the milk, cream, sugar, and vanilla bean over medium-low heat just until the sugar is dissolved. Remove ¼ cup of the cream mixture and add to the egg yolks to temper so the eggs don’t curdle. Add the eggs and cream back to the saucepan and continue to cook, stirring, until the cream coats the back of a wooden spoon. Strain the mixture into a chilled stainless bowl, scraping any bits from the vanilla bean into the mixture. Add the vanilla extract. Cover the mixture with plastic wrap and chill until ready to churn. This recipe can be made a day ahead.

In a food processor, chop the panforte until ground, but not pulverized. (Reserve a tablespoon for garnish.) Churn the ice cream, adding the chopped panforte and continuing to churn until evenly distributed into the ice cream. Freeze until ready to serve.

To make the affogato, scoop the ice cream into glasses. Pour ¼ cup strong, freshly brewed coffee or espresso over the ice cream. Garnish with a sprinkling of chopped panforte. Serve with Italian almond cake topped with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar.

* Copyright Alisa Barry 2015

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.