In Europe, it’s not uncommon to find quaint little houses turned restaurants around unexpected street corners, far from the usual restaurant row.
Wander in and a magical experience awaits — plentiful food perfectly prepared, perfect wine pairings, impeccable service and, though it won’t be on the menu, a sense that time is going to stand still until the meal is well and truly over.
Fortunately, it’s not necessary to fly to Paris or Rome for this experience. Saratoga, Wyoming, has a tiny Italian eatery in a small, unassuming home built in 1904 that will evoke the same feel.
It is Bella’s Bistro.
A Few Of Their Favorite Things
The menu at Bella’s is, in the words of its owners, a list of their favorite things to eat.
“Tommy and I, you know, got some creative play in bringing together dishes that we both love from various places that we’ve worked in the past,” Cassie Orduno told Cowboy State daily. “And also, you know, just handcrafting a menu that we felt would be successful for Saratoga.”
The bistecca Saratoga is a particularly good example of that Wyoming twist on Italian food.
“That is a 16-ounce T-bone in caramelized brown butter and garlic and shallots with fresh Italian herbs poured over the top of the steak, which is a really unique kind of thing,” Tommy Orduno told Cowboy State Daily. “It’s a Florentine style of steak.”
The creation is Tommy’s and comes from years of working under other European chefs, like the late Mario Petit, as well as Simone Parisi and Patrice Parello.
Cassie, meanwhile, is very partial to the gamberretti carciofi, which marries jumbo shrimp and artichokes with lemon, basil and garlic in a cream sauce.
“It’s all the things I like to eat,” Cassie said. “It’s just a nice lemon cream sauce, and I would say that I helped come up with that one.”
Other menu items include classic Italian dishes: chicken manicotti, gnocchi strascicate and sausage arrabiata, just to name a few, as well as time-tested favorites like lasagna and spaghetti with meatballs.
“A lot of the things that I serve are real classic Italian dishes, mainly a lot of Tuscany, and foreign-style cooking, because those are the chefs that I have worked for,” Tommy said. “They are the ones that have kind of influenced me to that type of style.”
Local Ingredients Add To The Experience
Meals at Bella’s come with a signature slice of house-made focaccia along with herb-infused olive oil. Written in that oil, with balsamic vinegar, is a large letter “B” for Bella, in cursive.
It’s a shame to ruin the perfect letter, but once the first bite has been taken, the “B” is done for. The bread is irresistible — so soft and buttery. Better even than the great bread baked in Paris, France. (Sorry, Parisians.)
The restaurant takes care to source as many ingredients from local suppliers as possible for its menu. That includes greens from the nearby Brush Creek, as well as thyme and beets, and goat cheeses from Medicine Bow Creamery.
“They’re just top-notch,” Cassie said. “And we love having (Brush Creek) as neighbors.”
Brush Creek also supplies the spirits used for bespoke Wyoming cocktails, which range from the Thyme Bellini and the French Creek Brushfire to The Farm Martini, as well as several others.
It’s A Love Story, Baby
Bella’s Bistro is a happy accident along the way of life for Cassie and Tommy Orduno, but behind it lies a great little love story.
Cassie Orduno had moved to Denver after attending Michigan State University with a now ex-boyfriend.
“Pretty much as soon as we got to Denver, it became apparent that the relationship wasn’t going to move forward,” she recalled.
Cassie took a job at Sullivan Steakhouse, where she was a server and staff trainer.
A couple of years later, along came Tommy Orduno, who was hired in as a sous chef but was soon promoted to executive chef.
The two were just colleagues at first, and eventually friends.
Then they started dating.
“Sullivan’s had a pretty strict policy about employees dating,” Cassie recalled. “It was not permitted.”
So, as soon as it started to become obvious to some of their coworkers that the two had a relationship outside of work, Cassie quit, so as not to jeopardize Tommy’s position at the restaurant.
“Cassie is incredible,” Tommy Said. “And once we started dating, it just kind of clicked. We were just right for each other. It’s like a fairy tale, when it comes down to it, where you know, your business partner and your best friend is your wife.”
Once they were married in 2009, they started to think about the next chapter in their lives. Of course, that future had to have a restaurant in it.
“I’d been out to Encampment and Saratoga several times with Cassie,” Tommy recalled. “And a restaurant just so happened to come up for sale that used to be called Stumpy’s.”
A Touch Of The Irish
The little pizza and submarine sandwich shop once known as Stumpy’s had a commercial kitchen going for it, but to become the dream Cassie and Tommy had, it would take some work – a lot of work.
Luckily, construction was a fall-back for Tommy anytime he wanted a break from the restaurant business for a little while.
“Seamus Bradley was a general contractor and he’s from Northern Ireland,” Tommy recalled. “He’s an incredible carpenter and woodworker-cabinet maker. So, I really learned a lot from him over the years, working for him.”
The bar in Bella’s, and all of the woodwork and tiling, were all completed by Tommy within 90 days — just in time for opening on his birthday, May 31, 2011.
Enter The Mysterious Bella
The restaurant’s name isn’t what people expect, however, and has become the source of a little inside joke.
Bella, you see, isn’t one of the restaurant’s owners at all. Nor is Bella a relative or an ancestor of either owner.
Bella was the couple’s Boston terrier.
“She lived above the restaurant with us for the first year we were open,” Cassie told Cowboy State Daily. “We adopted Olive in our second year, when we moved next door.”
Tommy has a thing for naming his pets after food, so he named the first new terrier Bell Pepper, which became Bella for short, and the second Boston Terrier Olive Oil — Olive for short.
If and when there’s a third, he’s thinking about Capers for it.
“(Bella) was just the most loving and smart dog,” Tommy said. “She was like one of the dogs that spoke English. She really understood the language. Whatever you told her to do, she would do it.”
Bella lived for about 15 years and has since died, but she’s always with the couple in spirit at the restaurant. A portrait of her hangs in the restaurant at the end of the bar.
The inside joke comes when customers who have perhaps forgotten to make a reservation or something like that, will tell the hostess that they personally know Bella, trying to get special treatment.
“It’s always funny, because everybody who works here knows that Bella was a dog,” Cassie Orduno said. “And so we always just kind of laugh and say, OK, we’ll give her your best regards.”
If You Go
Perhaps the only downside to Bella’s Bistro is its popularity. Lots of people have found this out-of-the-way treasure, and so it is always busy, even in the off-season. In the summer, the restaurant expands with patio dining, which helps. But it’s still going to be busy. For that reason, reservations are recommended, as well as an above-average appetite for what will be very generous portions of classic Italian food.
Call 307-326-8033 or visit online.