Classic Italian cuisine, with a twist at Bari Italian in Kingston Village

 

CEDAR RAPIDS — Marcello Florio remembers waking up on Sunday mornings in his hometown of Pescara, Italy, to the sounds and smells of his mother and grandmother cooking.

“My passion for cooking came when I was very young,” he said. “On Sundays, my mother and grandmother woke up very early to start to cook. My room was next to the kitchen ... Every Sunday I spent with them because I was curious.”

He’s taking that experience, along with a culinary career in Europe and the United States, to the kitchen as the executive chef at Bari Italian, a new restaurant opening in the Metropolitan building in Kingston Village.

B.J. and Jim Hobart of Hobart Historic Restoration own the Metropolitan, and B.J. Hobart owns the restaurant. B.J. said she came to the idea of opening her own restaurant slowly.

“Jim and I were not really interested in being restaurateurs. But this is our building, and we knew this was a prime spot for the (McGrath) Amphitheater and the growing Kingston Village area,” B.J. said. “In building our business, Jim and I spent a lot of time going out to eat, because we didn’t have time to go home and cook. We felt there was something missing in the Cedar Rapids area, so we decided to put our money where our mouth was.”

B.J. said she wants Bari to be a comfortable restaurant with good food, where customers can come before or after a show at the McGrath Amphitheatre across the street or the Paramount just across the Cedar River.

“I wanted something timeless and not geographically bound. I want you to feel you could be in Cedar Rapids or Chicago,” she said.

 
 

The restaurant is divided into two sections, with a lounge area on one end and a dining area on the other, with a long bar in-between. A room at the back can be closed off for private events. In the spring, they will add patio seating outside.

An optical illusion of a fire pit is the center of the lounge. What looks like flickering flame is actually water vapor streaming up, illuminated with colored LED lights.

“One of the things I knew I wanted in here was a fireplace. When I moved here from Tampa 20 years ago, it blew my mind you couldn’t go sit by a fireplace and have dinner,” B.J. said.

However, she realized a real fire would easily overheat the space, and the logistics proved challenging. The faux fire took its place.

“It still has the effect without the heat,” she said. “The lounge area was important to me. We wanted some place to go after the theater, after the Paramount. When we asked, ‘Where can we go after a show for espresso and dessert?’ we were hard pressed.”

She said, with no previous restaurant experience herself, it was key to bring on a strong team. That includes general manager Sarah Thiltgen, bar and restaurant consultant Ryan Manka, pastry chef Jo Olson, and Florio.

“The primary goal is to make nice and fresh food. We have a very small freezer, and it’s empty. We want to serve local and fresh when possible,” Florio said.

He attended culinary school at Villa Santa Maria in the Abruzzo area of Italy before moving to the United States in 2000, where he worked as a chef and consultant in cities including New York City, Miami and Chicago.

When he met B.J., she didn’t have to work hard to convince him to move to Cedar Rapids.

“I decided to slow down,” he said. “I love the quiet area.”

Living in big cities, he said while laughing and pointing to his bald head, “Is why I get the white hairs. The few hairs are white.”

Manka, who previously worked behind the bar at Cobble Hill and Black Sheep Social Club, among other places, said he enjoyed learning about Italian drinks while designing Bari’s bar program, which includes a carefully curated beer and wine list in addition to craft cocktails.

 
 

“It’s Italian classic cocktails, slightly tweaked for American palates. We add a slight sweetness to balance the bitterness,” Manka said.

The restaurant is expected to open sometime this week. It will be open for dinners and Sunday brunch, though it may expand hours during downtown events and shows.

If Bari goes well, B.J. said she’d like to open more restaurants in other properties they develop down the road,

“The sky’s the limit with ideas and creating concepts,” she said.

Thiltgen suggested the name Bari, for the region of Italy her family is from, which is also near Florio’s hometown. Bari, Italy, also is a seafood town, she said, which fits with their menu, which features dishes like pan seared scallops over risotto. The menu also includes dishes like pasta, pizzas and entrees like chicken Milanese and braised short ribs. The menu will likely rotate seasonally, Florio said.

For Sunday brunch, Florio is putting his own spin on dishes, like an eggs Benedict with Parmesan bechamel sauce instead of hollandaise and prosciutto instead of ham.

His Bolognese sauce and his meatballs are two recipes he got from his grandmother.

“All the dishes you see are a twist on their cooking style, and then I put my own style on it,” he said. “The Bolognese is very old, the classic Italian cuisine.”

He said he can’t imagine doing any other job.

“To me, cooking is hate and love. Chefs sometimes hate to cook, but when you are a day or two without it, you say, ‘I have to cook something,’” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re cooking spaghetti or a very difficult dish, if I make you feel happy, I feel proud.”

If You Go

 

What: Bari Italian

Where: 450 First St. SW, Cedar Rapids

Hours: 3 p.m. to last dinner seating at 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 3 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

Details: (319) 826-6532, bari-italian.com

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com