Bella Italia owner Mark Dirnberger discusses how he went about turning tragedy into triumph by rebuilding his downtown Cape Girardeau restaurant better than it was before the fire.
In the early morning hours of March 19, Mark Dirnberger sat on the curb and watched somberly as his dreams went up in smoke. His Bella Italia was burning.
“Fire is relentless; it’s mean,” Dirnberger said. “It has no mercy. There’s no way to explain the feeling of emptiness you have. There’s not a thing you can do. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, there go all of my dreams.'”
Even after firefighters snuffed out the blaze — caused when an employee tossed a cigarette into a trash can under the bar — only a charred shell remained.
Though the fire was mainly in the front of the building, everything on the inside of the landmark downtown Italian restaurant at 20 N. Spanish was ruined, from the kitchen equipment to the dining area to the ornate wooden bar. Even the items on the walls had melted from the extreme heat.
“There was really nothing left,” Dirnberger said. “Nothing.”
But even as Dirnberger sat there watching the firefighters work, his thoughts turned to how he could rebuild. Make the restaurant better. More of the kind of restaurant he had wanted to begin with. Make it more his place.
“I was already thinking: Where do we go from here? How can I move forward?” Dirnberger said.
The results can be seen as the restaurant is set to re-open eight months later. There’s a new outdoor dining area that will seat about 25 people. New wood floors have been put in. A bar that once sat in The Club, which operated on Good Hope years ago, has now been refurbished and installed. Windows that once were used in the Royal N’Orleans restaurant have been used to decorate a wall that will separate a smoking area from the non-smokers.
There’s also all new kitchen equipment, new banquet rooms, two new bathrooms and several other changes. Dirnberger describes it as having a Boston/Chicago type feel.
“Over here in the back is going to be the round table for the Mafia crowd,” Dirnberger joked on a recent tour.
But he really thinks the changes will be noticeable to customers. Waiting times should be down thanks to more cooking equipment, he said.
Dirnberger hedged a bit on revealing how much the work cost, but he did say it was more than $500,000.
“We didn’t just give it a facelift,” he said. “We made it better.”
He didn’t wait long after the fire. Dirnberger said he started the very next day.