By Sue Wade
Two out-of-the-way cafés, one hidden in downtown Punta Gorda, another in a Venice neighborhood strip mall, have changed hands but not plans. Both promise to keep serving locals their comfort food faves, with a few new twists.
From Marion, Ohio, to Marion Avenue
Cleveland natives will know just what his motto, “Home of the Cleveland Polish Boy,” means. And though Bella’s young owner, Alex Armistad, hails from the Cleveland area — Marion, Ohio, to be precise — and is thoroughly at home in a kitchen, the moniker isn’t his.
It’s lunch-menu homage to a kielbasa dog that’s all Cleveland. Said to date back to the 1940s, the Polish Boy is a big, sloppy kielbasa-on-a-roll, with French fries, cole slaw, barbecue sauce and, in this case, mustard.
It’s worth coming to Punta Gorda’s reopened Bella’s just to have one. Preferably, while wearing coveralls.
After previous Bella’s Bistro owners Jim Ready and Carla Easton closed shop on May 1, Helene Armistad and son Alex made the place theirs — starting with the simpler name Bella’s and a streamlined menu.
Alex has been in food service since he was 18, starting at Chipotle, where was promoted to general manager before he turned 20.
Long ago, his mother said, “I told him, ‘When you turn 23, I’m going to buy you a food truck or something.’ So, when this came up, we were right here, signing papers.”
Inspired by her late mother, Helene first worked for an elder-care agency, then opened her own. All My Heart now provides personal support services for the elderly and the disabled, in three North Port assisted-living homes.
With her own business going strong, now it’s Alex’s turn.
“I’ve been watching her work hard my whole life,” he said. “My goal is for her to retire.”
A single mom, Helene had worked for Arby’s corporate and later became GM of an Arby’s franchise.
“I enjoyed the part where I ordered the trucks and put together schedules. But the fryer, that’s not me. Now, when I’m 65 I can ask him to make me some dinner,” she laughed.
They provide the same comfort food as Bella’s Bistro, but with a streamlined menu. For instance, there are build-your-own rather than predesigned omelets.
For lunch, besides the Cleveland Polish Boy, they serve basic salads, soups, wraps, sandwiches, burgers and bag lunches, and plan lunchtime bicycle deliveries to downtown Punta Gorda. Any leftover bag lunches will go to the Charlotte County Homeless Coalition.
Alex’s favorite thing to cook is breakfast, so Bella’s serves breakfast all day, with pastries from Nino’s Bakery of Punta Gorda.
A French twist
Venice’s eight-year-old Shamrock Café might still be peppered with shamrocks, but its new owners have brought the neighborhood favorite a whole new joie de vivre.
Chef-owner Fabien Langelus, who studied culinary arts at Lycée des Métiers Condorcet Arcachon, has been cooking for 31 years and ran a successful catering business in France.
Langelus and wife Carine moved to Venice five years ago from Bourdeaux, France. They first managed Le Petit Bistrot (now Côté France) in downtown Venice’s KMI building, then briefly operated Le Bourdeaux French restaurant in downtown Sarasota before returning home to Venice in March.
“We love the life here,” said Fabien. “We probably have more friends here than we ever had in France.”
Le Petit Bistrot regulars who’ve followed them to Shamrock Café won’t find a complete French menu. For now, Fabien won’t change the café’s breakfast, lunch and dinner offerings that the neighbors enjoy — often every day. But every Wednesday dinner is French Night and daily specials reflect a French twist.
In the fall, Chef Fabien plans to roll out a new menu incorporating more French dishes, such as beef Bourguignon, chicken Normandy, escargots and salade Niçoise. Desserts will include crème brûlée, chocolate mousse and French cake with crème anglaise.
Vive la différence!