T or C dining: Cafe Bella Luca a taste of Italy

Café Bella Luca, an urban-feeling Italian eatery and pillar of the T or C dining scene, sits in a repurposed former market on Jones Street in historic Truth or Consequences, NM. The spacious, high-ceilinged dining room was lovingly renovated and turned into a contemporary haven for Italian cuisine. Look up and you’ll see the original WPA era tin ceilings discovered when a dropped ceiling was removed during the 2007 renovations.

The cafe, opened on Valentine’s Day 2008, is popular with both locals and visitors. While Bella Luca translates as “beautiful light”, in truth, the restaurant was named for owner Jessica Mackenzie’s two oldest children, GioiaBella, LucaMassimo. She opened the restaurant with her then husband who has since moved on. She capably runs it on her own these days albeit with the help of a dedicated staff.

Bella Luca's Forno, perfect for cooking woodfired pizzas and more photo/Steve Collins

Bella Luca’s Forno, perfect for cooking woodfired pizzas and more photo/Steve Collins

A bit about Cafe Bella Luca

Good food is the point here and it’s clear that Mackenzie is passionate about what she does. While she can cook and says she does “every chance I get”, she mostly leaves the kitchen to her chef, Connard Bowling, newly arrived from California and his assistant, Oscar Mares. Mackenzie, nee Palumbo, learned to cook from her Italian grandparents. She says her first food memory was rolling meatballs with her maternal grandfather at age three. “Cooking as a family was part of the thread of our family fabric – passed thru generations,” she said “Eating and sharing of food [is] so prevalent and joy producing that I can’t identify ‘when’, but more identify it as a part of the core of my soul.”

Mackenzie discovered T or C when her parents to Monticello, northwest of T or C in the late 90s. They ran an organic farm there until 2007. Her two sisters also live nearby. The organic tradition was passed on to Mackenzie. Whenever possible Café Bella Luca serves organic produce and uses “non-treated” chicken, wild caught seafood and Colorado grass fed beef. When asked if she’ll ever grow her own she admits to a long-term fantasy of turning the parking lot into a garden.

Oscar flaming a saute pan, photo/Steve Collins

Assistant chef, Oscar Mares  flaming a saute pan, photo/Steve Collins

When we asked locals where to eat, Café Bella Luca was on every list. It’s not just the locals who love CBL. They are four-time winners of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. Their wine list both is varied and affordable.

Mackenzie works the front of the house as one of the servers, but her alert eyes are constantly scanning the room, you can almost read her mind. Does the plate look good? Is the server on top of things? Do the customers look happy? The answers to these questions, from what we observed, are all resounding “yeses”.

The seasonally changing menu goes from wood-fired pizza to more serious food and it’s all done well. Weekends (and sometimes mid-week at busier times) they offer a few specials. The big forno they built holds pride of place in the open kitchen. From our table we could see the grill flare up as one of the chefs prepares a dish. Everything that emerges from the bustling kitchen is made to order. The  dinner menu ranges from wood-fired pizzas to entrees.  When asked if she has a philosophy behind the restaurant, she wased eloquently about it. This jumped out at me; “We seek to embrace the uniqueness of the local culture while emphasizing culinary artistry in this growing community. We seek to excite and tantalize palates, from expert to novice with our fine fare” That’s a tall order, but as far as we could tell from our dining experience, she’s meeting her mission.

Our dinner

House cured olives, photo Steve Collins

House cured olives, photo Steve Collins

Mackenzie had her chefs prepare a tasting menu for us so we could get a sense of the menu’s depth while adhering to my special dietary needs. They started us off with the house-marinated olives, a selection of green and black redolent of herbs and spices along with bread and herbed olive oil. Our four-course dinner began with salads. Steve was served one of the evening’s specials; Bibb lettuce, avocado and tangerine slices with Champagne vinaigrette. I had the richly hued arugula and roasted red pepper salad. This usually is served with goat cheese, but in deference to my dairy-free diet, it was left off. Steve’s next dish is perfectly herbed and crisply fried calamari “served in a sauté of roasted garlic, pepperoncini and roasted red peppers over baby field greens”. The rich red, spicy Shrimp Arabiata, a menu standard, was for me. The velvety sauce was so delicious I cleaned almost every bit of it off the plate. We were both getting pretty full, but there was more to come.

One of the evening's specials shrimp risotto, photo/Steve Collins

One of the evening’s specials shrimp risotto, photo/Steve Collins

Steve’s entrée was another one of the evening’s specials; grilled shrimp on a carrot and broccoli risotto. I was served perfectly braised short ribs that melted in my mouth. This is usually served atop house-made pappardelle, but as I don’t eat wheat Mackenzie had the kitchen prepare organic rice spirals for me. We were both unable to finish our entrees and took them with us. They were part of our lunch the next day.

Steve’s dessert was the house-made sorbet and for me there was a large, saucer-shaped locally-made chocolate truffle. We rolled out of Cafe Bella Luca sated and happy at the end of our dinner.

Throughout the evening, the service was knowledgeable, attentive and friendly. If you’re a local, like in Cheers, everybody knows your name and I suspect, if you plan to come back again during your time here as you very well may, they will remember you. It’s just that kind of place.

Sharing her love for food and wine is part of who Jessica Mackenzie is. She called her staff “family” and clearly she carefully chooses them, picking people who share her passion for good food and good service. She wants her customers to be “enriched by the joy and fulfillment great food brings to the table of life”.

If you’re passing through T or C or staying here, Café Bella Luca should be on your must-eat list. We’ll be back next time we’re in town. We loved it!

If you go

Bella Luca is open every day but Tuesday. They always open at 11am. Closing time varies. Check their website for current hours. Reservations are recommended for weekends and holidays.

Read about more T or C dining places
Good eats around Truth or Consequences NM

 We were guests of Café Bella Luca. Their generosity was greatly appreciated but did not affect this post in any way. We had a wonderful dinner.



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18 Responses to “T or C dining: Cafe Bella Luca a taste of Italy”

  1. Bespoke Traveler
    March 31, 2019 at 11:33 am #

    The shrimp risotto looks delicious!

  2. Agness
    April 1, 2019 at 5:34 pm #

    Let me tell you that I am a big fan of Italian cuisine. It’s good to see that Santa Fe has such a great restaurant where you can get some simple, but yet delicious Italian dishes. The dish you ordered is just perfect to me as I love seafood.

    • Billie Frank
      April 2, 2019 at 12:47 pm #

      You’ll have to go to Truth or Consequences, NM to eat this Agness. Wish it was in Santa Fe- we’d be regulars.

  3. noel
    April 7, 2019 at 1:19 pm #

    This looks like a place that I would frequent, i really love that oven mosaic…spectacular!

  4. Michelle
    April 7, 2019 at 4:41 pm #

    This looks like a wonderful restaurant. I love all Italian food. I especially like the olive and bread appetizers 🙂

  5. Patti
    April 7, 2019 at 4:46 pm #

    That looks fabulous. I’m allergic to shellfish, so I couldn’t eat that, but the photo is very enticing - I especially love bread, with olive oil and vinegar and I “love” olives. Yum!

    • Billie Frank
      August 4, 2019 at 7:58 am #

      I couldn’t eat it either- for me it’s the dairy- but Steve said it was wonderful/

  6. Doreen Pendgracs
    April 7, 2019 at 7:03 pm #

    You’ve got my mouth watering! Looks like the kind of resto I’d enjoy.

  7. Lisa Richardson
    April 7, 2019 at 8:18 pm #

    Wow. Initially I wondered why on earth you’d choose Italian fare in New Mexico, and I am Italian- but it is clear. Divine!

    • Billie Frank
      April 8, 2019 at 7:00 am #

      There are two serious foodie restaurants in T or C- Cafe Bella Luca, Italian and Latitude 33 pan-Asian- so we went to both.

  8. Suzanne Fluhr
    April 8, 2019 at 3:43 am #

    What an excellent “you are there” restaurant review. If I ever open a restaurant, I will definitely invite you to try it and write a review—assuming we have our act together. (Don’t worry, the chances of me ever opening a restaurant are not slim and none. They are none and none.)

    • Billie Frank
      April 8, 2019 at 7:01 am #

      If you ever take that plunge, let us know- we’ll be there.

  9. Neva @ Retire for the Fun of it
    April 8, 2019 at 9:06 pm #

    This is such an amazingly tempting display of each plate. The mosaic on the fireplace just blew me away.

    • Billie Frank
      April 9, 2019 at 6:38 am #

      That mosiac- in fact the entire forno- blew Steve away. He’s a big fan of cooking with fire.

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