Those looking for a quick trip abroad could spend hundreds of dollars to jet across the sea. Or they could simply stop in Lake Leelanau for a meal. That’s because Bella Fortuna North represents Florence, Italy, more convincingly than immersing oneself in a YouTube video.
Owners Dr. Jane Fortune and Dr. Robert Hesse know a thing or two about the region located about two-thirds of the way up the boot of Italy, having lived there part-time for 22 years. They have turned the former Key to the County in Lake Leelanau into a restaurant celebrating some of their favorite Florentine foods.
For appetizers, there’s arancini di riso (creamy rice balls rolled in bread crumbs), a daily selection of piatto tipico (meats and cheeses), and funghi picni (stuffed mushrooms). First courses include soups and pastas. Second courses feature bistecca Florentine style, a T-bone steak rubbed with sea salt, rosemary, and dried porcini mushrooms; vitello saltimbocca, veal scallopini with prosciutto and fontina cheese; and anatra, crispy roasted duck confit, leg and thigh, with pear and fig mostarda (Italian fruit mustard). Hesse says the duck and the spit roasted chicken marinated in limoncello vinaigrette and rosemary are the most popular items on the menu.
Served after the main courses in Tuscan tradition, salads include mixed greens, a colorful caprese (the ever-popular tomato and fresh mozzarella), and a rucola salad, with arugula, pear and pecorino cheese.
This being a Florentine restaurant, the wines all hail from Italy. Fortune and Hesse praise the local wines but say they aren’t appropriate for what they are trying to create.
“The wines have to be Tuscan or Florentine, so there aren’t any local wines,” said Hesse.
The food, while obviously the key to the restaurant’s success, is only part of the story. Fortune and Hesse have parlayed their mutual love of the arts and Tuscany into fascinating careers which have landed them in various locales and opportunities.
Fortune is a lifelong summer resident who has written several books on art. She is an advocate for artistic preservation, social advancement and civic engagement. She is also the cultural editor of Florence’s English-language newspaper, The Florentine.
She founded and chairs Advancing Women Artists and The Florence Committee, two not-for-profit foundations dedicated to identifying and restoring works of art by women.
Many of those works have languished in storage in Florence museums for centuries. She’s even won an Emmy award for the PBS special, “Invisible Women,” based on her book celebrating unknown or at least under-recognized female artists of Florence.
Hesse, her partner in both the restaurant and life, has likewise acquitted himself well. He has held posts as president of Medaille College and the Chautauqua Institution, executive director of the Joffrey Ballet, senior vice president of the U.S. Committee for UNICEF, and founder and chairman of the Indianapolis City Ballet. Somehow he also found time to create and helm his own consulting firm, which for 18 years assisted not-for-profit organizations in trustee development, fundraising, public relations, and staff recruitment.
A PASSION FOR TUSCANY
With all that behind them, why open a restaurant? It’s exactly because of their passion for the culture of their adopted home abroad. They also want to give back to their community, both in terms of employment opportunities and spreading word of the culture they so enjoy.
“We’re in Florence four months of the year,” said Fortune. “Bob and I have gone there for 22 years and own a place. At the restaurants we go to (there), we’ve been going so long we’re treated like family.”
That’s the experience they want to offer at Bella Fortuna, and from the staff to the owners that’s certainly the case. The two take time to speak with everyone dining at the restaurant, going from table to table.
From rescuing and restoring historic works of art to helming and founding award-winning ballet companies, Fortune and Hesse clearly are of a mindset to do things impacting many others. “We want to do things that are significant. We don’t want to do anything ordinary,” said Hesse.
That includes creating a destination restaurant that brings the tastes, textures and ambience of their favorite region abroad to their summer home. They also offer luncheon presentations ranging from cooking classes to Italian opera, cheese-making to travelogues. All in all, it makes for a fascinating trip abroad, without leaving the region. “We’re not there yet, but we’re getting close,” Hesse said with a smile.
Bella Fortuna North is located at 104 W. Main Street in Lake Leelanau. Call 994-2400. Online, go to BellaFortunaRestaurant.com or visit its Facebook page. It is open for dinner from 5 to 10, though autumn hours will change. It is closed in the winter.
Prices: First courses from $9, second courses from $18, salads from $7. Wine and drink prices vary.
Don’t miss: Arancini di riso. These creamy risotto rice balls are rolled in panko bread crumbs, stuffed with fresh mozzarella and served in a delicate tomato sauce.