No one leaves Liz Varnedoe’s kitchen without being fed. It’s a good thing she has two. For the past 23 years, Varnedoe has whipped up Italian comfort food just the way her husband Vinny taught her. Their cozy, one-room restaurant quickly became a Fayetteville staple and Varnedoe’s own personal mainstay. When was widowed – twice – Bella Villa was her bastion. Varnedoe is both owner and chef, even waitress when need be. She takes pride in homemade marinara – no paste allowed, brick-oven pizzas made from her own dough and dishes with (literal) personality. Lee’s Lobster Ravioli is named for dear friend and Cumberland County Register of Deeds Lee Warren Jr. Colleen’s Chicken Cacciatore takes inspiration from Colleen Wellons, owner of Tangles beauty shop. But when she goes home to her Charleston-style house in the heart of Haymount, she bakes. “I’ve got 10 pounds of butter and 20 pounds of sugar in the fridge,” she says and laughs. “But I couldn’t make you a ham and cheese sandwich. “I’m a baker at heart.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to believe she has much time for the kitchen – either one of them. Varnedoe is a bright bubbly blonde who drives a zippy silver sports car and is involved in a slew of community organizations. She is chairwoman of the Crown Center’s governing board, chairwoman of the Stanton Hospitality House, past president for the Professional Women of Fayetteville and weekly host for the Cumberland County Business Network which meets at her restaurant every Tuesday.
In its former life, Bella Villa Italian Restaurant was a drive-thru Biscuit Kitchen, but it has always had the heart of an Italian bistro. White table cloths and fresh flowers adorn booths lining walls of windows or clustered in the center, inviting family dining just the way Vinny would have wanted. Vinny Vindigni stowed away aboard a ship making its way from his native Italy to Ellis Island when he was only 18 years old, bringing with him the famous Sicilian temper and way with food. “He’d cuss you out in a second,” Varnedoe said, “and feed you the next.” And boy did he feed Fayetteville.
Vinny was an entrepreneur – he opened restaurants all over Cumberland County: Bella Villa II in Spring Lake, the Lobster House downtown and Bella Italia on Ramsey Street. All the while, Liz held down the fort at the original Bella Villa, cooking the way Vinny taught her. And then, in 1999, Vinny succumbed to a long illness. Two years later, Liz married David Varnedoe after meeting him in, you guessed it, her restaurant. He was the one who suggested the fresh flowers and white tablecloths, and the two of them ran the business together. But on her way home from a cruise with a girlfriend in 2004, she received the terrible news that David had died of a massive heart attack while deer hunting. It was friends Sue and Lee Warren who made the call.
And it was Sue Warren who found the white Charleston, the Haymount house with the iconic side piazzas just like the ones designed to capture coastal breezes. Two open-air porches, one upstairs the other downstairs, run almost the entire length of the house. When Varnedoe first bought it, the downstairs porch had a door, but after years of exposure to the elements, it was rotting. She removed it, opening up the porches even more. And of course, a white house begs a bright red door. The second thing she replaced? The kitchen, naturally. And that is where she entertains a host of good friends. On a recent weekday morning, Varnedoe brewed a pot of coffee for visitors and Sue, a regular in both of her kitchens. Varnedoe had already put in a full morning at the restaurant, up before 6 a.m. to chop ingredients necessary for that day’s lunch and dinner but there she was, at home, turning out hot muffins from the oven. “Her gift,” Sue said, “is hospitality.”