Ciara Semack, owner and chef at The Blonde Bistro, had aspirations of attending culinary school before she took the route of school teacher and administrator. However, her career path led her to the culinary world nonetheless.
After a brief stint as a stay-at-home mom, she began catering and then it was just a short while before she opened The Blonde Bistro in Bellefonte.
“It was basically a hop, skip and a jump to a restaurant, because it was like, if you can cater, why not have a restaurant?” she said.
In November, the South Allegheny Street eatery will celebrate its four-year anniversary.
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Since opening, the restaurant has welcomed a plethora of new and returning customers, the clientele growing largely by word of mouth over time.
Semack said there was one primary assumption, though, that she had to work to counter right after opening.
“When we first opened, people were like, ‘oh, there’s another place that has pasta or another place that has pizza.’ People thought we were a pizza shop and I always tell people, we are not by any means a pizza shop,” she said. “We are a fine restaurant that just happens to have pizza. We do upscale things with a twist.”
Though The Blonde Bistro brands itself as “New Wave American,” serving up not just Italian cuisine, but burgers, salads and other offerings, its Italian flavors stand out — so much so that Semack recounts instances of customers commenting that they expect to see “a greasy Italian guy with a gold chain and a white T-shirt” in the kitchen, only to be surprised when they see Semack and a bevy of her female relatives running the show.
The family atmosphere behind the scenes extends to the guests.
“When you come in, we treat you like family,” Semack said. “I’ll have a conversation with you at the kitchen counter, or you’ll see my daughter run through every once in a while. It’s a really unique place.”
Just as the clientele has evolved over time, so has the restaurant’s menu. Semack gets creative with her holiday and weekend specials (which can be found on the restaurant’s Facebook page), and the best-sellers and most-requested of those items can often make their way onto the regular menu. Similarly, the menu has been influenced by the bistro’s local partners, such as Big Spring Spirits.
“One of our most-requested dishes is the Big Spring vodka pasta ... we’re the only place in town that has vodka sauce that uses vodka in it actually,” Semack said.
All of the restaurant’s Italian sausage comes from Hogs Galone in Philipsburg, and Semack said they use it to make a dish called Sausage Rustica.
“What we do is we take their hot sausage links and cut them into medallions and saute them with butter, garlic, red sweet bell peppers and green bell peppers and deglaze the pan with our homemade tomato gravy,” she said. “That dish is definitely delicious.”
Semack’s favorite menu item, though, after much deliberation, is the Rosalli, a dish created out of necessity.
“We needed to come up with a back-up plan (for) when we run out of lasagna and that’s where our dish Rosalli came from. All of the ingredients that go into our lasagna — the homemade ricotta, the homemade meat sauce — (go into the Rosalli),” she said. “It’s essentially like a lasagna casserole, so while it tastes the same, it’s just layered differently.”
After four years, The Blonde Bistro is already a fixture in Bellefonte, and that’s one of the reasons Semack finds the restaurant business so rewarding.
“There are so many different levels of owning a restaurant. While it’s high stress, it’s also very rewarding,” she said.
While she and her staff are busy feeding the stomachs and souls of their wide customer base, there’s nothing that feeds Semack’s soul quite like the overly abundant positive feedback she receives from the customers that have been there since day one.