Sal Ferrante has spent nights cooking - perfecting his recipes - until the sun had come up.
The 54-year-old owns Bel Paese Italian Ristorante in Springettsbury Township. When Ferrante moved here from Sicily in 1979, he learned about the restaurant business from his uncle. He worked at pizza shops for several years before opening Bel Paese, which marked its 20th anniversary this month.
Ferrante's business evolved from a pizza eatery to a more upscale, gourmet establishment. He said he had a few classic Italian dinners on the menu along with pizza, but the pasta dishes became more popular than the pies.
"We were doing upscale food," he said. "To have a pizza shop name was not the smartest thing."
I stopped by the restaurant for lunch recently with a co-worker. I learned about the restaurant from friends a year ago, but the menu was a little pricier than Cheap Eats had budgeted. We recently increased the price limit to $15, with an occasional splurge, to cover more restaurants in the area and to add variety to the column.
My guest and I were seated in a quaint dining room surrounded with painted images resembling artwork in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.
Patrick, a very polite server, greeted us, took our orders and brought us a basket of warm, homemade bread. The atmosphere was quiet and relaxing.
I ordered a bowl of pasta e fagioli and a garden salad with house vinaigrette. My fellow Cheap Eater - York Daily Record business reporter Lauren Boyer - chose a caesar salad with grilled chicken.
We enjoyed the bread as we waited 10 minutes or so for our meals.
Lauren said the chicken on her salad was flavorful and tender.
The pasta e fagioli, a staple in Italian cuisine, had a nice mix of beans, pasta and vegetables. Broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, olives, onions, mushrooms, peppers and tomatoes toppled the romaine lettuce. I've never seen so many vegetables on a restaurant salad, which of course, I loved. Too often, salads lack color.
When I later interviewed Ferrante over the phone, he was on his way back from an Amish farm in Lancaster, where he hand-picks the broccoli he serves.
He makes high-quality ingredients a priority at his restaurant, a value he learned in Sicily.
Ferrante said he spent his first several years in business educating his customers about a cuisine that sometimes seemed foreign. For example, he serves his fish whole - heads and all.
"You give somebody like me a square fish, and I will laugh and say, 'What is this?'" he said. "In Sicily, as long as the fish has its head on, that's really fresh."
Ferrante said his customers recognize and appreciate the originality and quality of his food.
"We are very affordable for what we serve," he said. "If you use good food or good ingredients, they cost a lot of money."
If you go
LOCATION: Bel Paese Italian Ristorante, 1201 Memory Lane Ext. in Springettsbury Township
LEIGH'S PICK: Pasta e fagioli, garden salad and diet Pepsi ($11.88)
HOURS: Noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
PRICE RANGE: $1.75 to $23
ACCEPTS: Cash and credit
KID'S MENU: Yes
DETAILS: Call 840-4040 or visit www.belpaeserestaurant.com
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