The word “bistro” sounds exotic and much sexier than café or restaurant in my book. So it was an easy choice to head for Bonelli’s Bistro in Kalispell for lunch, along with the fact I love Italian food. The bonus was getting to chat with owners Maren and Jeff Schuman. This cute couple is brimming with infectious enthusiasm as they banter back and forth about the challenges and rewards of owning the bistro. They have done well juggling a full life of raising a blended family of four, catering, private chef occasions, and coaching kid sports, in addition to operating Bonelli’s Bistro five days a week.
Both Jeff and Maren are natives of Kalispell. They were familiar with each other but didn’t start dating until later in life when they both worked at Craggy Range in Whitefish. Maren was bartending, and Jeff was head chef. The long hours were weighing heavy on family time. Owning their own business would give them the flexibility to set their own hours, so in January 2015, they purchased Bonelli’s from Tony and Kage Loiacono.
Jeff says with a grin, “We did everything the wrong way. We bought a business, got married, and then had a baby.” They did right by taking a successful turnkey business and continuing the standards set by the previous owners for exceptional service and well-prepared food using the best ingredients. Maren and Jeff made minimal changes to the interior. They didn’t change the rich earthy interior colors nor the historical family photos that the Tony Loiacono had used of his ancestors to fill up the walls.
Tony Loiacono drew on his Italian ancestry growing up in an Italian neighborhood in Toronto and his mother’s cooking to create an Italian-Mediterranean menu for Bonelli’s. Tony acquired a nickname of Bone growing up, so he added an Italian flare to honor his Italian roots, and thus the name Bonelli came to be.
When the Schumans purchased Bonelli’s, it was already a local hotspot for breakfast and lunch. Maren and Jeff thought why change a good thing, so they have continued with the same menu, adding in daily specials and a few additions of their own invention. Bonelli’s is known for its emphasis on gluten-free entrees. Their freshly baked bread comes from Cere’s Bakery, and their gluten-free bread from Red Poppy Gluten Free Bakery, both Kalispell businesses. The Schumans strive to use local farmers and vendors whenever possible, knowing that supporting each other is the right way to do business.
This couple splits the duties, with Jeff heading up the kitchen, while Maren handles the customers and wait staff. Jeff’s formal training included the Culinary Institute of Montana through the Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell and the Western Culinary Institute in Portland.
Back in the kitchen, Josh Schroeder is the “soup king.” I ordered the chicken artichoke soup and gave it 10 stars. “Josh has ruined soup for me anywhere on the planet, it’s that good,” says Jeff. When I asked Josh where he drums up his soup concoctions, he shrugs and quietly says “just being inventive.”
Customers can order breakfast from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Options for the first meal of the day include paninis, wraps, French toast, and the quinoa breakfast bowl, served with avocado, pepitas, and Olio Beato. Gluten-free quiche is offered daily. One of the unusual breakfast choices is the Butternut Sausage Hash, a combination of butternut squash, roasted red peppers, onions, zucchini, kale, sausage, feta, and potatoes, with two over-easy farm fresh eggs.
Bonelli’s serves lunch, both carryout and indoor seating, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. A variety of salads, paninis, wraps, and subs round out the choices, along with soups from the “soup king.” For my lunch, in addition to the soup, I couldn’t decide between the pasta special, or the Figsciutto Panino, loaded with Prosciutto, Havarti, arugula, onion, Balsamic figs, Fig aioli. I sprung for the pasta and wasn’t disappointed. I ended my visit with a caramel latte to fuel me up for the long drive back to Helena.
When asked how they have fared through the shutdown due to COVID-19, both Maren and Jeff said the locals have been so supportive with takeout orders. Bonelli’s saw the need for dishes that would feed a family, so they crafted their specialty dishes into family-size meals, including Chicken Parmigiana Calabrese, Homemade Lasagna, and Eggplant Parmigiana Palermo.
I admire the Schumans. Owning a successful eatery is always challenging under the best of circumstances. They have weathered the last few months successfully by keeping the bistro open for takeout, and now with indoor and outdoor seating in warm weather, they have emerged firmly optimistic and still smiling.
Baked Penne w/Chicken
16 oz. cooked penne
6 oz. marinara sauce
2 oz. pesto
2 oz. ricotta cheese
Two chicken breasts
2 oz. Mozzarella
1 oz. Parmesan
Pinch of red chili flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook penne according to directions on package; set aside.
In a sauté pan, heat marinara, pesto, ricotta, and chili flakes to simmer.
Add penne pasta; toss till hot throughout.
Transfer to an oven-safe pan and top with Mozzarella and Parmesan
Place pasta in the oven at 350 degrees for 15 min. until cheese is melted.
Season and cook chicken breasts in oven or grill.
Slice chicken and place on top of pasta.
Donnie Sexton, who retired in 2016 after a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, currently freelances as a travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.
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