For Jeff and Sandy Rook, owning a restaurant isn’t just about feeding people; it’s about connecting with them.
The McCandless couple met three decades ago while working at Squirrel Hill Eat and park – he was a cook, she was a waitress – and has spent the last 15 years running Bella Frutteto at Wexford. Here at this popular Italian restaurant, which means “beautiful orchard”, customers and employees are like family.
So it is with a heavy heart that the Rooks are closing their 148-seat physical space to focus on starting a restaurant and takeout business under the same name. Ribs and grill from Dee Jay’s BBQa West Virginia institution with spots in Bridgeville and Washington, Pennsylvania, will be the new tenant.
“It’s not something we want to do, it’s what we have to do,” says Jeff, citing skyrocketing rents and food prices and staffing shortages. He is eternally grateful to the team members they have, he adds.
Although a final day has yet to be determined (stay tuned to social media for an announcement), until mid-October the beloved business will operate on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 3 p.m. to 9 a.m. By the end of 2022, Bella Frutteta’s signature dishes – sausage-stuffed chicken, gorgonzola fillet and lasagna with pork diavolo, sesame-crusted Ahi tuna and apple ravioli – will be back in pots and take-out containers.
Sandy, an affable breast cancer survivor who has spent more than 25 years in ‘the place of smiles’, expects many bittersweet tears over the next few weeks as people come to say goodbye and good chance.
“I can’t even go to Aldi without bumping into a customer and crying,” she says.
As at the right time, a group of two enters the dining room. Dabbing her eyes with a towel, Sandy rushes over to greet the familiar tear-streaked faces.
Bella Frutteto is nestled in Franklin Village, a hilltop mall overlooking Orchards of Soergel. It is, in many ways, a microcosm of the restaurant industry.
The Brandt School Road business opened during the 2008 recession, withstood several pandemic-related closures and Sandy’s illness (she was diagnosed in February 2020), and built a staunch following, even amid of the gluten-free crowd, thanks to a special menu adhering to their dietary restrictions.
This labor of love between mom and pop doesn’t just fill bellies with modern and classic Italian cuisine, it continues to build community. Due to its location just off Interstate 79, Bella Frutteto is a popular site for first dates that have turned into weddings. The restaurant has hosted hundreds of private events, from birthday parties to wakes.
Long-time customers Fran and Judy Livingston of Franklin Park forged a friendship with the Rooks, sharing many laughs over chicken piccata and veal parmesan.
“It’s a sad thing,” Fran said. “Their wedding soup is the best in Pittsburgh, their Caesar salad is outstanding and, of course, they are good people. Service and quality have been consistent over all these years.
Jeff, a Buffalo native who grew up cooking, says Bella Frutteto exists because of her disenchantment with corporate chains, but was supported by the customer base. He wanted to create a space that was an extension of the family table; a neighborhood joint with chocolate peanut butter bombs instead of smiley cookies.
While Sandy admittedly doesn’t possess the same culinary prowess as her husband, her role at the restaurant is just as important. Jeff calls him “the face of the place”.
I can confirm this. Upon my arrival, Sandy greeted me and my 12 year old daughter with the same warmth and hospitality that we receive at a relative’s home. The interview was more of a conversationalist as the Rooks reminisced about their life, their love, and their loyal customers.
Of course, we stopped chatting long enough to eat.
Chef Kale Elliot — who, in addition to several other staff, will be following the Rooks on their restaurant journey — made me some apple ravioli.
Available as a starter or entree, the cheese ravioli are tossed with Granny Smith amaretto, golden raisins and balsamic roasted figs in a sage butter sauce. Forget pumpkin spice, this culinary offering is fall decadence on a plate.
Looking out the window at the rolling hills dotted with apple trees, I remembered from my school days that the ancient Greeks considered the fruit a symbol of health, heart and happiness.
As the Rooks prepare for their proverbial last harvest, I am confident that the seed they have planted and nurtured for 15 years will continue to grow – not just through Bella Frutteto, but through the lives they have touched.