When Karen Stanley finally realized her goal of bringing a locally connected cafe with outdoor seating to Baraboo, she wanted a name to adequately describe the feeling of sitting down at the establishment.
Bella Vita, which translates into “beautiful life” in Italian, seemed like the most apt title for the cafe at the corner of Ash and First streets, a two-story Italianate built in the late 19th century. Stanley purchased the mansion turned apartment building turned restaurant in February 2018.
“I had a lot of visions for what I’d like to see happen here,” Stanley said. “Baraboo doesn’t have many coffee shops or restaurants with outdoor seating. The carriage house is a great place to open up and have outdoor seating, catered events, pop-up dinners. For right now, we’re just kind of starting slow with coffee and some lunch items and then expanding out.”
Stanley emphasized her desire to bring something different to the city.
“I kind of just opened what I wanted to see in Baraboo,” she said, noting she had driven past the building many times over her 18 years living in the city and has seen it relatively unused the entire time.
The main floor has a community table created from black walnut by a local resident, fitted with outlets for visitors to work while they enjoy a meal or a beverage. There is more seating upstairs along large, original windows overlooking the Baraboo River. The patio seating extends the restaurant outside with tables enclosed by brick and wrought-iron fencing.
Beverage options are not limited to coffee, though Stanley said Bella Vita has espresso drinks and iced coffee. About 10 employees pour cups of macha green tea, mix smoothies and even prepare a gelato concoction called affogato, which includes a shot of espresso.
There are food items like flatbreads, wraps and salads with an emphasis toward sustainability. Local woman Linda Goethel arrives each day at 5 a.m. to prepare homemade scones and other bakery items for the 7 a.m. opening time. Stanley said the business aims to reduce the amount of waste through reusable containers and offering paper straws.
So far, she said the cafe has received positive reactions upon its opening and mostly busy days as customers frequent the restaurant.
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Bella Vita likes to remain local with its offerings, Stanley said. From homemade lavender lemonade to a coffee roaster recruited from Madison, her aim is to reduce the amount of products from outside of the region.
Part of providing an alternative experience for residents was embracing an idea from a friend and sometimes employee, Taffy Harrison. When Harrison approached Stanley with a proposal for interactive, pop-up dinner events called Passion for the Trade Dinners, Stanley said she embraced the partnership with Harrison’s Cucina Port. Harrison previously owned Vintage Port in downtown Baraboo.
“She’s the mastermind,” Stanley said with a laugh. “Taffy just brings a lot of energy and excitement, so I’m pretty much just giving her free rein. I just wanted to provide the structure of the building. … This is really a community effort.”
Jake Lawler, the sous chef at Madison’s L’Etoile, will cook for the two dinner events. His approach to the private dinners also will be different, he said. For instance, all four courses, including dessert, will involve duck.
“It gives me an opportunity outside of Madison to show what I can do,” Lawler said. “I’m excited to bring a little touch of Madison out to Baraboo.”
Stanley said to get the type of experience Cucina Port at Bella Vita has planned, residents usually travel to Madison. This is a way to make that experience local instead, she added.
Harrison said the dinners, set for Sept. 15 and 22, will be interactive events beginning from the charcuterie board and first glass of wine. The sommelier, Micca Hutchins of French Farm-To-Table Wines, sources the wines to be paired with each course herself from France and will be there to present them. Lawler, who said the first dinner night’s reservations are at least half full as of Tuesday morning, will discuss the food.
“I haven’t been here much, so it’s going to be fun for me to cook for a bunch of people I’ve probably never cooked for before,” Lawler said. “I always like bringing new experiences to new people, so that’s what I’m super excited about, and to work in this awesome place.”