Wexford’s Bella Frutteto Is Closing But Its Menu (And Legacy) Will Live On
Owners Jeff and Sandy Rook plan to focus on takeout and catering.
For Jeff and Sandy Rook, owning a restaurant isn’t just about feeding people; it’s about connecting with them.
The McCandless couple met three decades ago while working at the Squirrel Hill Eat ‘n Park – he was a cook, she was a waitress — and spent the last 15 years running Bella Frutteto in Wexford. Here at the popular Italian eatery, which means “beautiful orchard,” patrons and employees are like family members.
So, it is with heavy hearts that the Rooks are closing their 148-seat brick-and-mortar space to focus on starting a catering and takeout company under the same name. Dee Jay’s BBQ Ribs and Grille, a West Virginia institution with spots in Bridgeville and Washington, Pa., will be the new tenant.
“It’s not something we want to do, it’s what we have to do,” says Jeff, citing skyrocketing rent and food costs and staffing shortages. He’s eternally grateful to the team members they do have, he adds.
Although a final day has yet to be determined (stay tuned to social media for an announcement), through mid-October, the beloved business will operate Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 3 to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 3 to 9 p.m. By the end of 2022, Bella Frutteta’s signature dishes — from Sausage-Stuffed Chicken, Filet Gorgonzola and Lasagna to Pork Diavolo, Sesame-Crusted Ahi Tuna and Apple Ravioli — will be back in catering pans and carry-out containers.
Sandy, an affable breast cancer survivor who spent more than 25 years at “the place for smiles,” anticipates a lot of bittersweet tears over the next few weeks as folks drop in to say goodbye and good luck.
“I can’t even go to Aldi without running into a customer and crying,” she says.
As if on cue, a party of two enters the dining room. Dabbing her eyes with a napkin, Sandy rushes over to greet the familiar, tear-streaked faces.
Bella Frutteto is tucked away in Franklin Village, a hilltop shopping center overlooking Soergel Orchards. It is, in many ways, a microcosm of the restaurant industry.
The Brandt School Road business opened during the 2008 recession, weathered several pandemic-related shutdowns and Sandy’s illness (she was diagnosed in February 2020) and built a diehard following, even amid the gluten-free crowd, thanks to a special menu adhering to their dietary restrictions.
This mom-and-pop labor of love not only fills bellies with modern and classic Italian cuisine, it continues to build a community. Due to its location right off Interstate 79, Bella Frutteto is a popular site for first dates that have blossomed into marriages. The restaurant has hosted hundreds of private events, from birthday parties to wakes.
Longtime customers Fran and Judy Livingston, of Franklin Park, forged a friendship with the Rooks, sharing many laughs over Chicken Piccata and Veal Parmesan.
“It’s a sad thing,” Fran says. “Their wedding soup is the best in Pittsburgh, their Caesar salad is remarkable and, obviously, they’re good people. The service and quality have been consistent over all these years.”
Jeff, a Buffalo native who grew up in the kitchen, says Bella Frutteto exists because of his disenchantment with corporate chains, but was sustained by the clientele. He wanted to create a space that was an extension of the family dinner table; a neighborhood joint with Chocolate Peanut Butter Bombs instead of Smiley Cookies.
Although Sandy admittedly does not possess the same culinary prowess as her husband, her role at the restaurant is just as important. Jeff calls her “the face of the place.”
I can attest to this. Upon my arrival, Sandy greeted me and my 12-year-old daughter with the same warmth and hospitality we’d receive at a relative’s home. The interview flowed more like a conversation as the Rooks reminisced about their life, love and loyal customers.
We did, of course, stop chatting long enough to eat.
Chef Kale Elliot – who, in addition to several other staff members, will follow the Rooks on their catering journey – made me Apple Ravioli.
Available as an appetizer or entree, cheese ravioli are mixed with amaretto Granny Smiths, golden raisins and balsamic roasted figs in a sage butter sauce. Forget pumpkin spice, this culinary offering is autumnal decadence on a plate.
Looking out the window at the rolling hillsides dotted with apple trees, I remembered from my school days that the ancient Greeks considered the fruit a symbol of health, heart and happiness.
As the Rooks prepare for their proverbial last harvest, I’m confident that the seed they planted and nurtured for 15 years will continue to grow — not just through Bella Frutteto, but through the lives they’ve touched.