tampabay.com

Bella's, Mise en Place stand test of time

Two mainstays mark two decades of good times and good eating.

By RICK GERSHMAN
Published July 28, 2006


In 1986, Tampa was very different.

There was no Tampa Bay Lightning, no Devil Rays, no Storm. Bob Martinez was mayor. New Tampa didn't officially exist. And the city still had apartments for rent.

But two new restaurants opened in 1986, and each has become a South Tampa institution: Bella's Italian Cafe and Mise en Place. Each is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, a remarkable milestone for any restaurant. In an industry in which close to 50 percent of new establishments close within the first year, Bella's and Mise en Place have stood the test of time.

Mise en Place prospered, even through its 1992 move from Platt Street to the brick-laden terminus of W Kennedy Boulevard and the 2001 divorce of owners Maryann Ferenc and Marty Blitz, who nevertheless continue to run the restaurant together.

Bella's prospered even as business after business has tried and failed along S Howard Avenue's "Restaurant Row." Co-owner Joanie Shumate said the other day that she and friends tried to count how many restaurants have come and gone on Howard between Kennedy and Bayshore boulevards since Bella's arrived. They came up with 23.

Mise en Place began life at the site now home to the Rack, a popular pool hall, bar and sushi restaurant. It moved to 442 W Kennedy Blvd. to attract a more urban, downtown clientele while retaining its connection to Hyde Park diners.

"Back in 1986, there was nothing going on in Tampa that was fine dining but not stuffy," Ferenc said. "Chef Blitz and I have always had a tremendous commitment to the same vision."

Ferenc credited the restaurant's continued success to its ability to evolve with the times while retaining its focus on adventurous, expertly prepared cuisine.

This month, Mise en Place celebrated its platinum anniversary with about $250,000 in improvements, re-covering and repainting the restaurant from front to back. Ferenc ordered new chairs that will help balance the restaurant's heavily masculine ambience, but they're "still on a boat from Italy," she said Tuesday. "I've threatened to swim over there."

When Bella's arrived in 1986, South Howard's only other restaurants were the iconic Bern's Steak House, Le Bordeaux, Cafe by the Bay and Hugo's Spanish Restaurant. Bern's, Hugo's and Bella's remain.

Co-owner Bill Shumate, Joanie's husband, said part of the secret is combining consistency with the ability to adapt.

"When we first opened, everything was 100 percent Italian," he said. "We didn't even have American coffee."

"Over time, we added some different things," Joanie Shumate said. "But you do have to be consistent - if you're not, you won't survive. I also have tried not to pay too much attention to what else is happening out there, what the next big thing is. I'd rather have the consistency."

Bella's certainly has been consistent in one area: its staff. Bar manager Larry Heisel has been working for the Shumates since 1982. He followed them to Tampa from Oklahoma and has been running Bella's bar since opening day.

"He's just amazing," Joanne Shumate said. "Someone might come in who he hasn't seen in five years, and he might not remember their name, but he'll remember what they drink."

General manager Eric Potts also has been at Bella's from the beginning, and another manager, Mikki Rice, is in her 10th year. Manager Milisa Burns is the "baby" at just six years.

Bella's, at 1413 S Howard Ave., also was one of the first restaurants in the area to offer full-service upscale dining after 10 p.m. That earned it many more regulars, Bill Shumate said: "We could not believe how many people would come in to order dinner at midnight."

To celebrate its 21st year in business, Bella's is teaming with several charities to donate 20 percent of customers' food bills. Each charity will send out cards to its mailing list providing the offer.

The first beneficiaries will include the Centre for Women, the Spring domestic violence shelter and Metropolitan Ministries. Other charities will be added throughout the year.

While several restaurants have made way for condos in the SoHo district, Bella's owners are not concerned.

"I think all this has been good for us," Bill Shumate said. "Our sales are up."

Mise en Place, meanwhile, is sure to benefit from a flood of residential development downtown.

"We've always benefited from being close to downtown, but not in downtown," Ferenc said. "Now there's a whole new neighborhood building around us. It's great."

Neither of Tampa's long-lasting dining destinations has any intention of calling it quits.

Ferenc spoke of "continuing to build and grow as we embark upon the next 20 years." The Shumates said the same.

"To me, every day is like starting over again," Joanie Shumate said. "We just want to keep on going."

Rick Gershman can be reached at rgershman@sptimes.com or 226-3431.