Sal Ferrante began his career as a restaurateur in 1991 when he opened Bel Paese as a small pizza shop in a storefront in Springettsbury Township. Antonella Ferrante traveled to the United States in 1993 for vacation and met Sal, her future husband.
The couple – both natives of Sicily – married and made their home together in York.
Prosperity and a shared desire to bring Sicilian flavors and traditions to York inspired the expansion of Bel Paese to a full-service Italian restaurant in 1995. The Ferrantes, with the help of their family, share the bounty and grace of their beautiful country with patrons seeking an authentic Italian dining experience.
“My husband taught me much of what I know about cooking,” says Antonella, now head chef at the eatery. In the early days of the restaurant, Sal experimented with ingredients and pairings, collaborated and sought feedback from customers to establish the foundation for an expansive menu that includes fresh salads, pizza, pasta, veal, fresh fish and seafood dishes. “Eggplant Opera” is among Sal’s original creations, and remains a favorite of diners. Antonella recounts the story of Sal preparing the dish for the first time – a flavorful ensemble of ricotta- and ham-stuffed eggplant, lightly breaded and pan fried to a golden brown and served with tomato sauce.
“He presented a sample of the dish to one of our most loyal customers who described the dish as ‘music for my palate,’” recalls Antonella. The feedback inspired the naming of the dish, a reflection of the concert of flavors therein.
“I like to keep it authentic,” Antonella says of her culinary philosophy and practices. “We serve wild-caught fish with the head and tail intact, as is the custom on the island of Sicily.”
The atmosphere in the kitchen at Bel Paese is busy and congenial as staff work behind the scenes to create a pleasing experience for patrons. Fresh bread is made on-site daily, and sweet Italian sausage is produced just behind the swinging doors separating the dining room from the kitchen.
Fresh produce sourced from farms in Lancaster and York counties is a staple of the menu at Bel Paese. “I love using the ingredients of the season – fresh tomatoes, zucchini and basil,” says Antonella.
In search of a pure, organic extra-virgin olive oil, Sal and Antonella visited Gianfranco Becchina’s olive plantation in southwestern Sicily last August. Antonella described the beauty of the plantation and its vast acreage filled with rows of Nocellara olive trees.
“We were excited for our customers to taste the real thing,” she says. “We are very picky about the products we use. We eat here, too.”
During their stay, the couple watched harvesting and production of the flavorful Valbelice oil. After their visit, the Ferrantes began importing the oil for use in dishes and for sale in the
restaurant. As my dinner companion and I sat at a table in a corner of the restaurant, Antonella poured the bright green oil from a freshly opened bottle. The aroma was clean and unadulterated; like freshly cut grass, the flavor vibrant and alive.
“The taste is amazing,” she says. “The smell of this oil takes me back to Sicily.”
We visited Bel Paese on a Friday evening, after a hectic and laborious week. We were poised for a leisurely meal – ready to settle into a more comfortable pace for the weekend. Our server, Stefania, greeted us with a bright smile and set the tone for our dining experience. She started us with a piping hot loaf of bread and two plates of the Valbelice olive oil. Each bite of the bread, dipped in oil, called for another.
We chose an appetizer to share – the black mussels in red sauce. The sheen of the black shells against a backdrop of red sauce with snips of fresh green herbs was pleasing to the eye. Inside those shiny black shells were tender, delicate morsels of meat with the flavor of the sea.
For my entrée, I chose the handmade lobster ravioli, stuffed with ricotta and lobster meat and finished with a champagne cream sauce and shrimp. I enjoyed a glass of Canyon Road Merlot with my meal. My friend chose the gnocchi with vodka sauce, a side of house-made sausage links and a glass of Moscato.
Stefania delivered a large crock of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to our table for sprinkling over our entrees. I was admittedly excited that she left the crock of cheese at our table for repeated application. We dined and chatted, enjoying the relaxed pace of the meal and the blend of flavors and aromas so carefully prepared for us behind the swinging doors.
Bel Paese offers a tempting dessert menu complete with house-made specialties like limoncello sponge cake, tirimisu and cannoli, as well as a rotating selection of desserts from Janina’s Fine Desserts, a European-influenced bakery in York. We chose to share the chocolate souffle with a scoop of vanilla gelato. It was the perfect sampling of sweetness and rich, dark chocolate paired with the mild flavor of vanilla beans.
The restaurant also boasts an extensive wine list with choices to suit any palate and budget, from conservative to extravagant. Wines are available by the glass or bottle, and bottle pricing ranges from $15-$200. The restaurant also serves a variety of beers including Peroni and Moretti as well as a full cocktail menu.
Bel Paese is a place to share an everyday meal, or a grand celebration. The space, menu offerings, staff and wine list are accommodating of a full range of dining options.
The Ferrantes’ passion for bringing the customs and flavors of Sicily to York has proven fruitful as they approach 25 years in business. They are in the planning stages of expansion of the restaurant into the adjacent retail space. Their vision includes a piano bar with eclectic decor – a blend of modern and mid-century furnishings; a space for friends to gather, linger and celebrate.
• 1201 Memory Lane Extension, York; 840-4040
• Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. and Sunday, 12-9:30 p.m.