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Vladimir Fulman used to look at the abandoned building across the street from his downtown West Palm Beach apartment and wonder.
With his 30 years in the construction biz (after immigrating to the U.S. in 1988) and a childhood love of restaurants he inherited from his mother back in his native Belarus, he just knew he could make something of the two-story building on South Dixie Highway at Hibiscus Street.
That something turned out to be Mama Bella Gourmet Market and Cafe, which is having a grand opening Oct. 1-3 from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. each day. The combination restaurant and retail quietly opened in February. For the grand opening weekend, customers will get 10% off their total purchase, including perishables and alcohol.
“I started renovation three years ago, starting to develop it,” Fulman recalls. “I was not in a hurry because the economy was down. Basically, [the economy] is still not in, how do I say, it’s best performance, but basically I am getting older, not getting younger, so I decided to try.”
The site has been abandoned for a while, though West Palmers may remember a small market sharing the lot with — on the Hibiscus Street side — a tailor shop and various other storefronts.
There are also four apartments on the second level. But the entire first level is a 3,750-square foot culinary emporium with seating for 75 people at cafe tables indoors and outdoors as well as at the bar, which serves wine, beer, coffee and smoothies.
In addition to the scratch kitchen eatery, the other side of Mama Bella’s is the market. The retail counters and stations include everything from grab-and-go meals and specialty stone pizzas to an artisanal deli and a wine room (with over 100 labels from Italy, France, Greece, Israel, Lithuania and the U.S.). The store shelves have imported gourmet foods, spices and ingredients.
Fulman says he decided to go with a market-and-cafe concept “because the restaurant business is very tough. So I decided to make it a little bit easier with a grocery market and little wine bar. It started from there and just kept growing.”
After touring a couple of gourmet food trade shows, Fulman began mapping out a plan, nurturing relationships and learning the ins and outs of various distributors and mom-and-pop businesses.
“It’s like a European store,” he adds. “We have products from all over the place. [Mama Bella’s] is several business together, it’s a grocery store, a market with eggs, milk, produce, olive oils — all the typical things you have in a market. Then we have an open kitchen and foods on display that we cook every day. And there’s another cafeteria option for the people where they can come and order from the breakfast menu, the lunch menu, the dinner menu. Or get a pizza made there. And we have a wine bar. You can sit down and have a drink, a beer or a wine. All of this is at the same time, several different options so we can’t go wrong.”
Where did the name come from?
“My mama’s name, her name was Bella,” Fulman explains. “She was in the restaurant business all her life. I grew up in the restaurant business. I’m talking in Belarus where I was born.”
He adds, “She wrote several books of recipes. I want to publish it. I wanted to build the place while she was living, but she passed away in 2014.”
- In the market, cabbage rolls are $11.99 per pound and meatballs are $8.99 per pound while soups are $3.49-$8.99. The specialty stone pizzas are $10.99-$13.99 for a gourmet 12″ pizza and $14.99-$15.99 for a specialty 12″ pizza. Wines start around $10 and go up to around $200.
- In the café, breakfast options include dishes such as eggs Benedict for $12.99, French toast for $6.99 and omelets for $7.99. Lunch offerings include made-to-order sandwiches starting at $11 and chicken croquettes are $2.99 each. Entrees for lunch and dinner include beef Stroganoff for $12.99, chicken Kiev for $10.99 and vegetarian lasagna for $12.99. Desserts are usually around $6.99 each and smoothies are $8 to $10.
Fulman says that despite having a wide array of international foods and dishes (“Italian food is popular. Everyone loves pasta and pizza”) it is the popularity of the Russian fare that surprised him.
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“Caviar, I was skeptical, but people love it. For Russians it is a basic. And this Russian potato salad. Nobody knew this, so we did it and now it’s, ‘Give me a pound of that, give me two pounds.’”
But it is the borscht that is quickly becoming a must-have for SoFlo foodies.
“Borscht, this Russian soup, does amazingly. We open the first day and we’ve never stop cooking it. I never thought that was going to happen. Basically, it’s vegetarian soup, a lot of vegetables, so it’s healthy and it’s delicious. We never stop cooking borscht.”
Mama Bella Gourmet Market and Cafe is at 518 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach.
After grand opening weekend, the regular hours will be:
- Mondays-Thursdays 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
- Fridays-Saturdays 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
- Sundays 9 a.m.-6 p.m.