2018-06-01 / Dishing

Mangia Bene!

The Blonde Bistro is a taste of the sweet — and savory — life
Michele Marchetti | Photos by Matt Fern

I can’t recall a family gathering that didn’t end with my mother’s declaration that she made too much food. My suspicion is that this ritual was borne partly out of a passed-down fear of throwing a party and running out of food (which, frankly, makes it no longer a party) and partly because my mother enjoys packing her food into Tupperware, where it gets a second life as a source of joy for the lucky recipient.

In my old neighborhood, opening the refrigerator to a container of my mom’s eggplant felt like winning the food lottery. I’ve spent years searching for an eggplant dish that could serve as a surrogate. Often I’m disappointed. The eggplant is either too thick and mealy or the sauce is too bland. (I like to taste my tomatoes.)

But recently I had an eggplant-eureka moment at The Blonde Bistro in Bellefonte.

A neighborhood joint that’s popular with both Bellefonte locals and people who make the drive from State College (considering the number of State College residents who won’t even drive to their own downtown to eat, this is impressive), The Blonde Bistro is a place to linger with a bottle of wine and heaping dishes of Italian food — cooked by a Ukrainian.

“People always say, ‘Where’s the little old Italian lady?’” laughs proprietor and head cook Ciara Semack, a Bellefonte native whose blond hair streaked with cotton-candy pink is the first sign that the restaurant isn’t riffing off of family recipes. The second sign: Semack starts every dish with her own “holy trinity” of minced garlic, a salt-and-pepper mixture she makes in the restaurant and butter instead of olive oil.  

Semack, a self-taught cook who minutes after meeting can make you feel like you’re one of her childhood friends, opened the restaurant in 2014 and instilled it with a homey vibe. It’s why one Bellefonte couple has decided to get married there. While The Blonde Bistro regularly caters off-site (Semack started in catering) and hosts parties at the restaurant, the July event will be its first on-site wedding.

That particular couple was first attracted by the décor at The Blonde Bistro. Signs with pithy quotes adorn the walls. Several years ago after a customer asked if she could buy one, Semack decided to rotate the signs. The last one to leave: “Tough Times Don’t Last, Tough People Do.”

The Blonde Bistro menu is designed to please crowds, especially loyal customers. After Bellefonte police Sgt. Jason Brower kept asking for a beef sandwich, Semack added the Brower Brisket Sub. The shout-out is a source of ribbing among other members of the department. They have to ask for the “brisket sandwich,” Brower says, because it “pains them too much” to say his name. Semack looks out for all of them, and the police force is too happy to support a business owner who cooks and delivers — free of charge  — to the police department on holidays.

Semack knows what it’s like to work when it seems as if the rest of the world is having fun. “Running a restaurant is like hosting Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas all on the same night,” she says. But she does it all with her playful personality.

A meat casserole she added after her best-selling lasagna kept selling out is named “the Rosali” after a YouTube sketch called “S**t Italian Moms Say.” The sketch follows an unshaven Daniel Franzese (an actor best known for Mean Girls) as he flits from the dining room to the kitchen to the meat market in a black wig and red lipstick. When he isn’t barking out directions about mozzarella and prosciutto, he’s on the phone yelling to “Rosali” that “Aunt Donna is on the phone!”

Sometimes, when a half-dozen lasagnas have been ordered, there’s a full house in the dining room and the phone is ringing, Semack will walk up to her manager, who is cooking as fast as she can, and tell her she needs to take a break “because Aunt Donna is on the phone.” She usually can’t get the words out without losing it.

Semack’s appreciation for Italian tropes and the kind of Italian-American cooking that dominated my own childhood makes me wistful for the New Jersey strip mall mom-and-pop shops that served mounds of pasta. Despite the fact that I thought everyone ate eggplant Parmesan on Christmas and considered an empty bottle of Parmesan cheese a cause for emergency, the only Italian lineage in my family is on my dad’s side. My mom grew up celebrating Passover and eating Gefilte fish.

While my taste buds have expanded, my love for food started with eggplant Parm. The fact that Semack’s Eggplant Rolitini is one of the most popular menu items at The Blonde Bistro isn’t the least bit surprising.

For her version, Semack slices the eggplant lengthwise into two large filets, which are dredged in her own breadcrumbs and fried to the perfect texture. Her end result is a menu item that is less a vegetarian option than a satisfying entrée that happens to feature a vegetable. There’s more melting than chewing as crispy yet creamy blankets of eggplant and homemade ricotta coat your mouth and leave you tuning out the rest of the world.

With an accompanying eight ounces of pasta, it’s a dish that should come with a pillow.

Just try to finish it. Or don’t.

There’s nothing like opening the refrigerator to lovingly made Italian leftovers. •SCM

Campanelle with shrimp, oranges and spinach

Total Time:  20 min  |  Serves 4-6

1 lb. cooked campanelle pasta
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. salted butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lb. medium shrimp, shelled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. white wine
1 can mandarin oranges
1 red bell pepper, sliced in strips
5 oz. broccoli florets
5 oz. cauliflower
5 oz. baby spinach
2 Tbsp. lemon pepper seasoning

For the vinaigrette:
1 tsp. lemon zest
Juice of one lemon
½ c. olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Cook the shrimp: In a large sauté pan, heat the oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add the garlic. Cook until soft, about 2 minutes. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Add the shrimp and white wine to the pan. Sauté until shrimp are pink and cooked through and have slightly browned.

2. Make the vinaigrette: Combine the lemon zest and lemon juice in a small bowl. Slowly add the oil, whisking constantly, until mixture is smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

3. Prepare the salad: In a large serving bowl, combine shrimp, spinach, red pepper, broccoli, cauliflower, half the juice from the mandarin oranges and all the oranges. Toss lightly to combine.

4. Combine ingredients: Add pasta and vinaigrette to vegetables in the serving bowl and toss until all the ingredients are combined and coated.

5. Finish the dish: Sprinkle the top with the lemon pepper seasoning and toss once more.

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