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The Business Boomlet in Bellevue

To walk down Lincoln Avenue, in Bellevue – a town of about 8,700 souls just north of the Pittsburgh border – is to catch a breeze of roasted coffee and baked bread when a customer walks out of Affogatto. Or, just up the street a ways, a door opens at Vivo, and the heady scent of garlic, olive oil and something else, eggplant perhaps, drifts into the street.

Bellevue’s main business district, which lines a roughly one mile stretch through the center of town, is not so unlike the Abruzzi region of Italy, where Sam DiBattista grew up. In Italy, villages and towns are completely self-contained. Each town has its own bakery, its own coffee shop, its own restaurant, and its own smells.

It is what DiBattista has spent the last seven years trying to create in Bellevue, the town where he now lives and works.

First, the restaurant.

In 2000, DiBattista and his wife Lori, opened Vivo, an upscale Italian restaurant, in a narrow storefront on Lincoln Avenue.

At the time, the borough’s main thoroughfare housed a handful of diners and an independent movie theater. Bellevue’s upscale dining scene might have been hampered by the fact that the borough was, and remains to this day, dry.

“We realized it was up to us to do something interesting enough to attract people here,” DiBattista recalls during an interview at Vivo one recent Sunday afternoon. “If you can’t afford advertising than you better be doing something unique enough that it’s going to cause a buzz.”

As head chef, DiBattista creates a continually evolving menu from ingredients found on near daily trips to the Strip District. His unique creations – which one night may feature quail stuffed with dried cranberries or, perhaps, a sea bass en papilotte - have garnered Vivo and DiBattista multiple “best chef” and “best restaurant” titles.

There is no mass produced artwork here. His brother, Emidio, an artist, helped design Vivo on a shoestring budget. Dried flowers and herbs hang from the window. Black and white photos of DiBattista’s brothers, sisters, daughters and friends line terra cotta walls.

DiBattista did not sit still after opening Vivo. Bellevue still needed a coffee shop, after all.

“You’ve got to think ahead,” DiBattista says, adding that he approaches business as he would a chess game - strategically. “You are going to have to plant elements of things that other small towns that are successful have. Without a coffee shop, it’s just not right. It’s not a town yet.”

While plans for the coffee shop were forming, DiBattista encouraged his brother-in-law and sister, Marty and Mary Armstrong, to open Frankfurters, a German-style hot dog shoppe, in an empty storefront across the street from Vivo. Frankfurters quickly became an established favorite for Pittsburgh’s linked-meat loving legions. Although the Armstrongs have since sold the business, the new owners maintain the menu and it continues to draw crowds.

With many businesses in Bellevue, DiBattista is the idea man, the-make-it-happen man. With the exception of Vivo, once he has a business up and running, he moves on to something else, a new idea, perfectly content to turn the reins over to someone else. In the case of three recent Bellevue startups, those reins have been taken over by three business owners, all 25-years and younger, who share DiBattista’s passion for coloring outside the lines and his belief that it is the smaller, independent businesses that define a community.

In 2003, the coffee shop plans materialized in the form of Affogatto, a coffee shop/panini purveyor/gallery/bookstore. In April of last year, DiBattista handed over the the reins to Victoria Green who bought the establishment at the age of 22.

Not long before, Green had moved to Pittsburgh with a former boyfriend and was scouting apartments throughout the city. That search led her to an apartment in Bellevue.  

“It was one hundred dollars cheaper for a bigger apartment with a balcony. We moved here and I loved it. I loved it from the beginning,” Green recalls one Sunday while playing cards with a friend in the rear of Affogatto, near the pancake bar. The place is humming with customers, many drawn to the pancake breakfast that she started not long after taking over the business.

Here’s the deal: For two bucks, you get two pancakes with two ingredients. On this Sunday, the batter flavors are plain, whole-wheat, or pumpkin. The list of ingredients fills one page with syrups like Italian Eggnog, Pink Grapefruit and Cheesecake and toppings like Chocolate Caramel Chips, Espresso and Blueberries.

Green, like DiBattista, will not just sit still. She has plans for her business and for Bellevue.  

And while Bellevue may never have that favorite neighborhood bar, if Green has her way, residents might find the next best thing in Affogatto.

“It’s like a bar more than a coffee shop, it’s like a coffee bar,” she says, adding that with Affogatto she wants to buck that corporate “next-in-line” culture. “It’s why I have this business.”

With respect to Bellevue, Green says she’s a little worried about the recent close of businesses including Reghina Margherita, a brick oven pizzeria whose owner moved to New Jersey, and the Laughing Lizard, a juice bar and soup shop.

“I really want to see more independent places in Bellevue open up. We just need more young people that really want to do something, to see something happen in Bellevue,” pleads Green who is helping a friend who wants to open a bookstore in Bellevue. Green says her roommate is also considering opening a fitness center/martial arts studio.

She was encouraged by the success of recent Bellevue startups like Mojo Bistro, which opened its doors earlier this year and is receiving accolades for its unique menu offerings.

“There’s such a charm to this town for how small it is. It’s one of those few walkable communities.”

But wait. There’s More.
After Affogatto, DiBattista and an angel investor bought the former G.C. Murphy Building just up the street from Vivo at 517-521 Lincoln Avenue. Not long after, on the first floor of the building, they opened “517521” a funky shop selling everything from vintage GoGo dresses to hand-designed T’s.

Enter Leslie Beard and Jesse Hambley.

This summer, Beard, approached the operators of 517521 – an independent-minded department store that had opened on the first floor of the building – about selling her handmade jewelry. In the first week of June, she took the keys to the storefront and 517521 reopened as Your Mom’s.

“We sell new, vintage and artist-made goods. We are basically trying to expand on what was already there and add more artist-made goods,” says Beard, 26, whose expanding collection includes vintage bling, a newly-added selection of skateboard parts, and a growing collection of vintage audio equipment.

Oh, and those 70s-era speakers and other audio relics that have become a draw for the store?  They belong to DiBattista who has a passion for vintage audio equipment which he repairs in his garage.
“It’s pretty much our most popular item,” Beard says. “There are a lot of people around who are into that analog sound and just can’t get it anywhere else.”

Earlier this year, Jesse Hambley approached DiBattista about renting out the second floor of the building to start Creative TreeHouse, a studio space where artists gather to work, host events, and collaborate.

Hambley, who turned 24 in September, hopes the space will one day become a one-stop hub for businesses seeking the freelance creative services of its members.

Creative Treehouse now boasts 40 artist-members ranging from bloggers to painters to photographers. Hambley, who also works full-time as a graphic artist, plans to seek non-profit status so that he can apply for grants.

Like Green and Beard, Hambley says running his own business offered him a “learn-as-you-go” crash course in accounting, marketing and management. That said, his studio often draws plenty of student artists. He encourages them all to make their mark on the world. Start their own business. Ignore the naysayers. Forge ahead.

“I tell them why not go for it? Why not think it out, try to get some funding and do it,” Hambley says, adding that he finds inspiration in DiBattista. “A lot of people told him he was crazy for starting Vivo in Bellevue. No one would come,” he notes. But DiBattista proved otherwise. “He’s been there six years.”

And Bellevue is all the stronger for it.

Sam DiBattista at Vivo

Bellevue sign

Victoria Green at Affogato

Leslie Beard at Your Mom's

Andy Quayle and Kaylynn Smith broadcast a weblog from Creative Treehouse

Jesse Hambley at Creative Treehouse

All photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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