Dining With Art

When: 6 p.m. Feb. 3

Cost: $29.99 plus tax for four-course meal

Where: Latrobe Art Center, 819 Ligonier St.

Details: 724-539-8049

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Updated 11 hours ago

Rita Witte grew up working in her parents' restaurant in the little Italian town of Paolisi, where, like it or not, her destiny was probably set.

“When you're a teenager, you don't want to do it, but you have to anyway,” she says; but nonetheless, she's now running Ricolita's Cafe in the Latrobe Art Center with her husband Harry Witte.

Restaurant work was a good fall-back when Witte found herself on her own in the United States at age 19. She had come to the states as a traveling companion to an older woman.

“Then she left and I stayed and got a job in a restaurant” in Lancaster, Witte says.

Years later, she's brought a little taste of Italy to the art center, having taken over its cafe on Memorial Day of 2016.

So far, the partnership is a good fit, says center director Gabrielle Nastuck.

“They're easy to work with and really down-to-earth, fun people,” Nastuck says.

The cafe and art center are showcasing their association with a monthly Dining With Art dinner. The next one is set for 6 p.m. Feb. 3.

The menu features an appetizer, salad, choice of two entrees and dessert. February entrees are prime rib and cedar-cooked salmon. Cost of the bring-your-own-bottle meal is $29.99 plus tax.

“We'll always have prime rib, because people like prime rib,” Witte says. “Then there will be something lighter, like fish.”

The original aim was to draw about 20 diners, Witte says. They seated 23 at the inaugural meal in December and 29 in January.

“The dinners help both of us,” Nastuck says. “People have a chance to look at the art while they eat some of Rita's great food.”

The cafe serves breakfast and lunch Mondays through Saturdays, and Witte says her $5.99 Italian breakfast sandwich is, hands down, the customer favorite.

Ciabatta bread is piled high with scrambled egg, pancetta, fresh mozzarella, arugula and tomato and drizzled with olive oil.

Not only is it a satisfying way to start the day, “It has all the colors of the Italian flag,” Witte says.

An American breakfast sandwich (egg, bacon and American cheese on an English muffin for $4.99), eggs and toast, a variety of omelettes, muffins and fresh fruit round out the breakfast menu.

Hot and cold sandwiches anchor the lunch offerings, with the Italian influence evident in the caprese panini, meatball sub and Italian, capicolla and cheese and salami and cheese subs. Most sandwich fillings also can be ordered in a wrap. For a little international flair, there's a take on the popular Cuban, with ham, salami, Swiss cheese, lettuce, pickle and mustard on a 6-inch sub roll.

Prices are in the $5 to $6.99 range.

“You get a lot of food, so it's a good value,” Nastuck says. “You can eat half now and half later.”

A soup du jour, such as Italian wedding, minestrone, chicken and rice, chowders and even egg drop, usually is based on a protein, such as chicken, left over from the day before.

For something lighter, the salad line-up starts with garden ($3.99) and Caesar ($5.95) and tops Marsbahis off with chef ($8.50) and grilled chicken ($9.95).

Nastuck, who describes herself as “a health freak,” says she and Rita Witte collaborated on a recent menu addition.

“We wanted to have choices that are healthy, all-natural, raw,” Nastuck says. “I asked Rita if she'd ever heard of Buddha bowls, and she came back the next day and said, ‘This is what we're gonna do.'”

The build-your-own Buddha bowls are available to eat in or take out at lunchtime on Wednesdays. For $5.99, diners can choose from a selection of grains, fresh greens and other veggies and protein choices like chicken, shrimp, legumes, nuts and tofu.

The coffee bar features blends from Prestogeorge Coffee & Tea in Pittsburgh's Strip District.

“That's the one thing (the art center) requested when we came in here, that we keep the Prestogeorge,” Harry Witte says. “I guess it's a pretty big deal, and it is good.”

Before settling in Latrobe, the Wittes lived in various places around the country while Harry worked as a draftsman. Rita stayed home with their three children.

When Harry retired, the family ended up in Charleroi, where Rita has relatives. In 2010, while Rita was receiving cancer treatment, Harry took the kids for a car ride while Rita visited her doctor in Greensburg.

“They drove around Latrobe, and he came back and said, ‘I found this little town and I want to show it to you. It's really clean and I think you'll like it,' ” Rita says.

Following their relocation, Rita decided to again cook commercially, starting in 2015 with meatballs, pasta salad, lasagna, eggplant Parmesan and Italian-style chicken dishes sold at local farmers markets.

Rita says Nastuck approached her about participating in one of the art center's Taste of the Neighborhood food-tasting events, and she countered by asking if Nastuck knew of a local place where they could set up an actual cafe.

At that time, the answer was no.

“The next week, Gabi came back and said, ‘Sun Dawg Cafe ( the former cafe operator) is leaving, do you still want a space?' ”

For farmers market customers missing Rita's lasagna and other dishes, Ricolita's does take-out catering. Lasagna, lasagna roll bites and eggplant Parmesan are available by the pan ($70) or half-pan ($35), as is ziti al forno ($60, or $30). A pan feeds about 25 people, Rita says.

Chicken dishes, meatballs, pasta salad and fruit and cheese platters also are available.

“At the farmer's market, customers kept asking us, ‘Where are you located?' But we didn't have a location,” Harry says. “Now we're located, and they can come to us.”

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or smcmarlin@tribweb.com.

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