From Italy, with love: Mano Bella Artisan Foods opens in SouthPark

Cuisine People

January 25, 2024

Raffaele and Madison Patrizi of Mano Bella Artisan Foods in the kitchen

First, a whirlwind romance, then a move to Charlotte. Now Mano Bella Artisan Foods brings its authentic Italian fare to SouthPark.

by Kathleen Purvis | photographs by Richard Israel

For Raffaele and Madison Patrizi, it’s all about the hands.

Their artisan pastas are made by hand. Their new market and casual café on Governor Morrison Street in SouthPark was built by hand (with a little help from Madison’s dad, thoracic surgeon Jeff Hagen, a handy man with a saw).

And their business is named Mano Bella — “beautiful hand.” When they met in Italy in 2013, Madison couldn’t speak Italian and Raffaele couldn’t speak much English. So when they would walk together, he would tell her, “Dammi la tua bella mano” — give me your beautiful hand. 

It was a whirlwind romance: Madison was only in Rome for a week. A student at Notre Dame University, she was there to study for her master’s thesis in church architecture. But her roommate lured her out to a disco one night, she met Raffaele and that was it: Love at first sight. 

When she went back to America, they kept up the relationship long distance, using Google Translate as they learned each other’s language. The next year, Raffaele came to visit her family in Los Angeles — and particularly, to meet her father so he could ask for her hand. 

They married in Rome the next year and joined her family in Los Angeles. Raffaele was already working in restaurants, so he stayed in food while Madison started on her architectural career. But they had to make a decision: Where to settle? Los Angeles is expensive, and so is Rome. Madison’s father, though, had been offered a spot as a surgeon in Charlotte. In 2018, they decided to join her family here. 

First, though, they spent six months in Italy, touring and eating. At one small spot in Sicily, there was no menu. You took a seat and were brought course after course of pasta. When the bill came, it was all of $20 each. 

That’s when Raffaele got what he called an “under the brain” idea: Why not bring an authentic Italian experience, including handmade pasta, to Charlotte? With Raffaele working nights at restaurants, including Terrace Café in Ballantyne and Mama Ricotta’s, while Madison worked days as an architect, they hardly got to see each other. 

So, in their small apartment in Charlotte, they started developing recipes. At first, they did gift baskets for family and friends. They made so many taralli — small savory snacks that are boiled like bagels and then baked — the humidity started making the lights in their kitchen flicker. 

They decided that food would be their future: Madison quit her job in architecture to develop the designs and packaging, while Raffaele made their products, including 12 kinds of fresh and dried pastas, sauces, biscotti and taralli. 

They rented space at City Kitch, a commissary kitchen in University City, and started selling their wares at farmers markets around town, including the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, Cotswold and Camp North End. 

When Rachel Klebaur of Orrman’s Cheese Shop moved to a bigger spot in uptown’s Market at 7th Street, they took her small space, selling their products and doing a daily pasta special that involves putting hot pasta into a wheel of cheese and dishing it up.

Using what they believe is the largest pasta maker in North Carolina, with a bronze extruder for better gluten development and starch formation (they offer at least two gluten-free pastas as well), they started sourcing ingredients from local farms and doing some wholesale distribution around North Carolina and into Virginia. 

Now the business is growing again. In a space with a big kitchen in SouthPark, they’re beginning to expand. They’ll keep a couple of the farmers markets and the booth in uptown, but the bigger kitchen will also allow them to grow their wholesale business. 

The new space is a market, with lots of grab-and-go things, Italian products and wine. It’s also a fast-casual café with seating for 70 inside (plus 10 more seats outside when the weather warms up), where you can order a plate of pasta or an entrée and a glass of wine or an Italian cocktail. They also plan to feature Italian-style beers made by several local breweries and host pasta-making demonstrations. 

Fried ravioli from Mano Bella, a new cafe and market in SouthPark.
A salad from Mano Bella, a new market cafe in SouthPark.

In a location surrounded by small businesses and apartments, they hope people will make their shop and café a handy place to eat or grab dinner. Raffaele Patrizi’s aim is “to give people a real, authentic Italian feel,” he says.

“We can lean into that family feel we’re trying to create,” Madison adds. “And have fun.”  SP

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