At the age of eight, during a family trip to Italy, Garret Fleming rejected a restaurant server’s warning that the tomato, guanciale, and chili-loaded all’amatriciana sauce he’d ordered was troppo piccante—“too spicy”—for a child of his age.
“I swear to God, the waiter told the cooks to ‘light it up’ because a little kid didn’t listen to him,” Fleming says. “I was sweating profusely. The hair on the back of my neck was standing up. My face was beet red.”
Nevertheless, the dish was delectable, he says—as was his first taste of defiance.
Twenty-five years later, both all’amatriciana and a heaping portion of nonconformity can be found on the menu at Bombolo, the new restaurant that Fleming and his sister, Eleanor Lacy, launched last week in Chapel Hill’s Midtown Market complex on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The restaurant fills the space formerly occupied by the French bistro Kitchen, which closed in December when owners Dick and Sue Barrow retired.
Bombolo’s name is distinctly Italian, as are a number of its dishes, but the restaurant’s ethos is perhaps best captured—albeit cryptically—by the text emblazoned on its front wall: Ceci n’est pas un restaurant Italien, which is French for “This is not an Italian restaurant.”
Despite what it states explicitly, the phrase doesn’t mean that Bombolo lacks Italian menu items; rather, it speaks to an emphatic resistance—contrariness, even—toward categorization that seems to have emerged as a growing trend among Triangle food ventures.
Oscar Diaz, for instance, who owns the forthcoming Durham restaurant Little Bull, recently told the INDY that Little Bull’s cuisine will eschew traditional labels and instead center around the “melting pot of the flavors in my lexicon.” Max Jr’s, another Durham eatery slated to open this year, sports the official title of “sausage bar and Biergarten” but was alternatively described by co-owner Joe Schwartz as “a representation of the foods” its three owners “know and love,” given that Southern and Jewish dishes, as well as German ones, will feature heavily on the menu.
This shift toward more varied cuisines may be attributable, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic, when the restaurant world was struggling to stay afloat. Genre, for some restaurateurs, became secondary to serving a menu that worked within their constraints.
Fleming and Lacy launched their first venture, a Chapel Hill barbecue joint called Big Belly Que, in 2019. The timing was less than ideal.
“The pandemic screwed it up because we had to immediately pivot and start doing takeout meals,” Fleming says. “Barbecue is such an ‘experience’ that we weren’t really looking to box it up. So we started changing up our menu.” Lasagna, pizza, and sautéed rapini became mainstays.
“It was a little strange for a barbecue shop,” Fleming says. “But we’d always had the desire to open up a restaurant that would be indicative of all the things we love.”
In January 2022, the pair closed Big Belly Que to pursue a more ambiguous concept that would allow them to showcase their mixed bag of culinary influences and experiences.
Fleming, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who appeared on Season 13 of the reality television show Top Chef, drew inspiration from the stints he’d worked at restaurants in Maine, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C. Lacy keyed into the skills she’d developed as a self-taught baker and sommelier. They both called on dishes from their upbringings and travels.
As a nod to their setting and to Big Belly Que, the siblings dubbed the new concept “Bombolo”: an Italian word that directly translates to “squab”—a farm-raised pigeon widely produced in North Carolina—and also functions as an idiom to describe someone “short and fat and jolly,” according to Fleming.
“I love game,” he says. “And I love fatness.”
While adhering to a single cuisine during a dinner at Bombolo is possible, it’s not recommended.
The menu—which features dishes from Italy, Indonesia, Turkey, Thailand, France, and the American South, among other regions—is a cohesive hodgepodge that offers diners the opportunity to create a balanced meal that speaks to them.
Eating at Bombolo is sort of like shuffling all of your most-played songs on Spotify: you wouldn’t have thought to listen to “Clair de Lune” right after listening to “I Like to Move It” (the Crazy Frog version), or to eat halibut khao soi (a Thai curry dish with rice noodles) in tandem with polpette (pork and veal meatballs), but man, they’re both bangers—and what a great palate cleanser.
That said, each dish on the menu is fairly balanced in its own right: pine nuts and persillade add crunch and herby brightness to the buttery, briny “anchovy-stuffed anchovies”; salted cucumbers and tamarind glaze cut through the earthy richness of the beef-cheek rendang; and orange zest and hazelnut praline feuilletine round out the chocolate bombolo, a ball of mousse that would feel illegal to eat without the additions of citrus and crisp.
Dishes are served on mismatched plateware, a quirk that aligns with the restaurant’s cozy, familial backdrop. Bombolo is tiny—the dining room seats 36, and 10 at the bar—and the funky wall mosaic is suitably distinctive to the owners.
“This is an intensely personal and family operation,” Lacy says. “That’s going to have to be our niche.”
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