By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Dec 12, 2002 at 5:28 AM

This holiday season, we can be thankful -- especially at the table -- that one Milwaukee business is still kicking.

When Russ Davis, who owns Cafe Vecchio Mondo and the Lakefront Palm Garden, heard last summer that Bella Luna Pasta's owners wanted out of the business, he stepped in and bought the company, started by Betty Puccio about 18 years ago. Puccio sold the business to the Krasno family in 1993.

"I just love their pasta," says Davis, when asked why he wanted to buy a business that didn't appear to be flourishing. "We bought it for years at the restaurant and thought it was a great product."

That belief in the product has been a boon to Bella Luna, which has kept all of the employees on staff, making pasta, sauces and, soon, other related products.

"We have ten different types (of pasta) for retail stores and four sauces," says Davis, who is hard pressed to pick a favorite.

"All of them! Come on," he says with a chuckle. "I am partial to our alfredo sauce, though. I think it's great."

Bella Luna has carved out a niche for fresh pasta in Milwaukee, where dried pasta clearly reigns. While Italians prefer fresh pasta and shops flourish there selling nothing but fresh pasta (although there is also a large market for pastasciutta, too), here, it is seen more as a gourmet product.

So, in the short term, Davis' task is to try to expand the market for fresh pasta.

"We are still working on that; still trying to increase sales," Davis says. "One of our distributors is in 28 states, mainly in the Midwest and in North Carolina. We're trying to expand our territory and our sales."

But like any businessman in love with his product, Davis is also thinking about doing more and he admits that he's considering entering the dry pasta market, too.

"It's possible, I have thought that. There is some opportunity there. We want to focus on the refrigerated fresh (pasta) for right now," he says. "(We are also considering) other products that compliment the pasta: olive oils, desserts, things like that."

Bella Luna's gift baskets -- available in five combinations -- are proving especially popular this holiday season, Davis says.

Bella Luna's pastas and sauces are widely available in Milwaukee at chains like Pick 'n' Save and at independent grocers like Sendik's. You can also visit the factory shop, 2074 N. Commerce St., which is open weekdays, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. and, through December, weekends 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

If you want to try it first, check out Lakefront Palm Garden's all you can eat pasta night, Wednesday evenings, 5-9 p.m. The Palm Garden is just up the street from the factory, at 1872 N. Commerce St.

Tours are also available, call for details. You can visit Bella Luna pasta at www.bellalunapasta.com or call them at (414) 562-5540 or (800) 884-8884.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.