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Mar. 13—FRANKFORT — Edward Carrella and his wife wanted to retire to northern Michigan, but the COVID-19 pandemic moved up their plans.
The Chicago native lost his restaurant job during the initial stages of the pandemic in 2020. They now live full time in Frankfort, where his wife's family has visited for decades.
Carrella and his business partner Tim Potter, a summertime Michigan resident, opened Vita Bella Italian Kitchen on Main Street about 10 days ago. Carrella runs daily operations, while Potter oversees the financial side from his home in Missouri.
"I had to rethink what I was going to do," Carrella said. "I noticed a strong need for an Italian restaurant in Frankfort."
Carrella said he hopes to fill that hole by offering homemade southern Italian food closer to their new residence.
"It's not meat-heavy," he said of the Mediterranean region's fare. "We have the traditional meatballs and poultry dishes. We'll incorporate more as we go along."
The menu starts with appetizers like fried calamari (Fritto Misto) and continues with traditional entrees like ravioli and chicken Parmesan. Carrella said guests can finish with dessert — whether they choose tiramisu, cannoli or another option.
The chicken a la vita is Carrella's invention. He said the breaded poultry features capers and a lemon butter sauce. It is served over spaghetti.
Perhaps one of the most noteworthy items in the kitchen is the 6,000 pound pizza oven. Carrella said the wood-fired apparatus was made in California and shipped to the restaurant, where it took about a week to build.
"We use three types of wood: cherry, ash and birch," he said. "The flavoring of that wood is in the pizza. The dough is only four ingredients — flour, water, salt and yeast. It's about the simplicity of it all."
So far, the most popular pie is the margherita, which is topped with mozzarella, tomatoes and fresh basil. Carrella said they sold almost 100 pizzas each day since opening — something he expected.
Everything on the menu is homemade: the noodles, sauces and mozzarella cheese. Though this means more work, Carrella said it is worth it.
"My father and mother were immigrant Italians," he said. "That's how we did it. We made everything homemade. I'm going to make things fresh and from scratch because I care."
The restaurant also includes a marketplace where customers can find grab-and-go sandwiches, premade meals, homemade sauces, wine and beer, snacks and sweets.
Potter said they modeled this after The Hill, a well-known area in St. Louis that features Italian shops and restaurants.
"It was worrisome to open a restaurant during a pandemic, but I thought the market concept would protect us," he said. "We decided to turn lemons into limoncello. It's already exceeded our expectations."
Additionally, Potter said, customers can sit outdoors on the covered deck, which will provide views of Betsy Bay all year.
"I think it's going to explode over the summer," he said of the business. "You'll have day trippers coming in from all over the state."
Carrella said they hope to open seven days a week by May, offering lunch and dinner that people can enjoy in house or at the nearby beach. Catering is also an option. They also plan to add holiday events and cooking classes to the calendar.
Vita Bella Italian Kitchen is open for takeout and dine in from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.