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Sale opens door to another restaurant

The chef and owner of local landmark La Bella Napoli has sold the restaurant. Umberto De Luca said Wednesday the sale should be final by the middle of next week.

Brothers Max and Mario Sabetti of Portofino Ristorante Italiano on Shoal Line Boulevard in Weeki Wachee are the buyers and will move their business to the current La Bella Napoli location at 4055 Mariner Blvd.

Max Sabetti said La Bella Napoli will be closed for about a week for some redecorating and refurbishing and should reopen March 9 as Portofino.

The shift in ownership marks the end of an era of sorts.

La Bella Napoli, after all, was a nice, sit-down restaurant back in a time when most places to eat out on the southwestern side of Hernando County were greasy spoons or drive-throughs.

"That's my passion," De Luca said of La Bella Napoli. "It's what I do.

"But I'm a little burned out," he added. "I need a little time for myself."

De Luca, 42, a native of Naples, Italy, came to this country in the mid '80s and started working in his uncle's restaurant in South Florida. He moved here because he had heard from someone that there were no good restaurants in Hernando County and first opened La Bella Napoli inside the Spring Hill Lanes bowling alley.

The restaurant was then at Kass Circle off Spring Hill Drive. De Luca moved it to the location on Mariner in 1999. Over the course of 17 years, though, he made La Bella Napoli a restaurant with regulars - a place to take a date without having to drive down to Tampa in the days before the Suncoast Parkway.

"I've had a lot of pasta from that man," Joni Industries owner Gus Guadagnino said Wednesday afternoon when asked about De Luca and La Bella Napoli.

De Luca's Clams in Blanco recipe was featured in the Times just before this past Christmas.

The sign by the front door of his restaurant is in Italian.

Qui Si Mangia Bene.

Here you eat well.

"It's part of me," De Luca said. "It's a part of my soul and was a big part of my life. Most of my life in this country. It made me who I am. Letting go is very painful. But it's also very relieving right now."

He got remarried in December, he said, and has two daughters from his first marriage and a 2-year-old son with his new wife. He lives in Indian Shores in Pinellas County and has been commuting an hour and a half up to Hernando. He says he wants to be a better dad and to do more than just work.

Mario Sabetti, 49, and Max Sabetti, 33, opened Portofino almost three years ago. They started talking to De Luca in late December.

The sale means a bigger space and a more central location for Portofino. Max Sabetti said the Portofino menu would stay except for some add-ons.

"Very good reputation," Pat Crowley, the executive director of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, said of Portofino. "Very good food."

"I really love the food at Portofino," roving Hernando County public relations person Vince Vanni said. "This is great. It brings Portofino's cuisine to Spring Hill. One of my problems with it was that it was too far away."

"It's still going to be that nice, warm feeling," Max Sabetti said.

"What I'm proud of is customers' appreciation and the loyalty they showed me over the years," De Luca said. "I had people coming week after week for 17 years. The loyalty was tremendous. It was overwhelming."

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sppimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

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