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Chef/owner brings Italian menu to Spicer with his fourth Bello Cucina restaurant

Jason Mueller, owner and executive chef of Bello Cucina in Spicer

SPICER –– When Jason Mueller opened an Italian restaurant in Morris eight years ago, he was chided for thinking that dishes he made — like scallopini, marsala, wild mushroom pancetta or butternut squash ravioli and lobster — would find an audience in the heart of rural Minnesota.

He proved his critics wrong and has since opened three Bello Cucina restaurants in rural Minnesota, including his latest in Spicer.

“We wanted to bring the nicer, high-end food that you would find in the metro area to rural Minnesota, without the expense,” he said.

He is owner and serves as executive chef at Bello Cucina restaurants in Morris, Fergus Falls, St. Joseph and Spicer.

“We’re now hoping to be the premier restaurant in the area,” said Mueller, sitting in the dining room of the Spicer restaurant, located at 194 Progress Way.

The building, which started out 20 years ago as a drive-in called Sh-Booms and most recently housed a popular steakhouse called Indulge, has been transformed and rebranded a half-dozen times in the last two decades.

After spending a month redesigning and decorating the 169-seat restaurant with warm tones and wine displays, Mueller opened the doors three weeks ago.

“It’s been going great. We’ve had a lot of great feedback,” said Mueller. “The community seems to be happy we’re here. We’re full every night.”

Besides an extensive list of pasta dishes like penne mare-monte, Tuscan rigatoni, carne cannelloni cabernet and linguine di Bosco, salads, appetizers and hand-tossed pizza and calzones, Bello Cucino in Spicer has a wine bar and tap beer bar in the main dining area, a full bar in the back dining room and plans to offer “boutique” wines in the near future.

They also have retail sales of imported olive oils and their own line of balsamic vinegars.

With a reputation for consistently serving high-quality food with good service, and a strong fan base from the Willmar area that has been traveling to his other Bello Cucina locations, Mueller said he’s confident Bello’s will succeed in Spicer.

Mueller said he had been looking for a location in Willmar but didn’t find adequate space. He said Spicer’s proximity to Willmar on state Highway 23 is a good match for his restaurant and his customers.

In the meantime, the 43-year-old Mueller said he’s developing plans to open two more Bello’s restaurants in Minnesota — in Marshall and Red Wing, and is looking to bring Bello Cucina to Indiana.

At the same time, he’s also designing a Cajun-style restaurant that he hopes to open near his Bello Cucina store in St. Joseph.

Mueller credits his well-trained staff for helping him operate all four locations.

“I seem to have a knack for finding people that have pride in what they do and a sense of ownership,” said Mueller. “I promote from within. So I want to reward people that don’t mind working hard for a living.”

Mueller received culinary training at St. Cloud Tech and at Johnson & Wales culinary institute in Rhode Island.

A trip in 2006 to Italy, where he visited numerous restaurants, helped him realize that the dishes he serves “hit the mark pretty good.”

He said his traveling customers have told him Bello Cucina’s food is “just as good if not better” than what they’ve eaten in Italy.

One thing that isn’t authentic about his restaurant is the name. He readily acknowledges that “bello” cucina is not grammatically correct. It should be “bella.”

And Bella Cucina is the name he intended for his restaurant in 2006.

After initial research showed no other restaurants in Minnesota with that name, he had menus, uniforms and signs printed.

But when he made the final application to the secretary of state, he discovered a restaurant in Bloomington had registered the name the week before.

He was forced to change the name and chose Bello Cucina which means handsome kitchen, instead of “bella,” which means beautiful.

“We took the little tail off the “a” and made it into an “o” because, for us, it was about the food. It wasn’t necessarily about the name, said Mueller.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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