La Bella Vita is a world away from the corporate retail career its owner Barbara Strom left behind almost a decade ago. Murals seemingly sliced out of the fabric of the Italian towns they depict adorn the store's walls and create a transporting effect for those who step inside to look around.
"You walk into the Amalfi coast," Strom points out. "You're looking at the bay in Positano. You have lanterns, a balcony sticking out."
Strom, a New York City native, opened La Bella Vita along Murray Hill Road on Aug. 15, 2002, after scouring the region to find just the right place to locate her lifestyle store. "I sat here for weeks, looking at the people who came down here, what the total experience was," she recalls. "There's nothing like it in the city."
She has filled her shop with fine Italian dinnerware and home decorations and has grown a flourishing bridal registry. Her dinnerware is sold by the piece, and while chain stores usually carry one or two designs from a manufacturer, when Strom commits to carrying a line, she carries all of the available options.
Hers is just one of 12 stores in the U.S. to receive a coveted Villa Vietri designation from Vietri — Italy's largest importers of dinner and serving ware — thanks to the breadth of her selection.
Strom is only part Italian, on her father's side, and she makes her home on the East Side, but the energy of Little Italy has proven over and over that it is the right place for her shop. "In Italy, it's all about this exuberance for life, and I think that is what we have here," she says. "It's this electric, vibrant feeling that you will never feel in a mall."
Maybe a line that is painted on the shop's ceiling says it best: "On the eighth day, God said, 'there shall be art,' and Italy was born."