Fab Food, Fine Art Fuel This Couple’s American Dream In Lakeland

The aroma from Berna Nar's kitchen wafts into the parking lot, where a line is forming outside Café Zuppino.

The Turkish restaurateur surveys the burgeoning lunch crowd with a twinge of ambivalence.

"I feel sorry when I see people having to wait," she says. "But I feel happy for us -- to feel like we are succeeding."

Success is no stranger to Nar, who graduated with honors from the University of Rome and who once worked as an Italian and Turkish interpreter for the World Bank in her native Ankara.

In his early bachelor years, her husband, Erkan, pursued a career in the fashion industry, journeying to London and the U.S. to study fashion and textile design. Later, he traveled the globe representing a German company that supplied the mining industry.

Nonetheless, Erkan remains an artist at heart.

"I come from a drawing family," he says. "My father and a sister are architects. Another sister is a well-known painter in Turkey."

Time and again, art, business and a passion for all things American kept bringing Erkan back to the U.S.

"I want my kids to be raised in this society -- with diversity, democracy, freedom," he says. "Anything is possible here."

In Florida, success has been elusive, though the ingredients have been in place for some time: Berna's fabled culinary skills; Erkan's, talent for creating well-rounded menus and a warm ambiance; their mutual, boundless enthusiasm for the community they choose to call home.

Plant City, a rural farming town best known for winter strawberries and southern-fried hospitality, was a curious -- but uniquely satisfying -- fit for the young Turkish family, who arrived in 2004.

"I feel safe there," Berna says. "People are very friendly and accepting." And it's a great place to raise kids, she adds.

Friends And Fantasy Fronds

Florida is completely different from the homogeneous culture of Europe, says Berna.

"Here you can see different nationalities, different cultures, different tastes. You don't feel like you're from another country."

Having good friends is a key to their life here, says Erkan.

"And the atmosphere is an inspiration for me. It is historical. You can meet the original people born here."

The Nars' road to Plant City is paved with inspiration, beginning with Erkan's fascination with preserving and painting palm trees.
"I called them Fantasy Fronds," he says.

Creating palm tree art for malls, airports and other public spaces first brought Erkan to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Then he discovered a Dover nurseryman who could offer a virtually limitless supply of palm trees.

The partnership ended when high winds destroyed the greenhouses that incubated Erkan's dream of palm tiki bars, heart-shaped wedding arches and specialty palms in football team colors. There wasn't enough capital to resurrect the enterprise.

Meanwhile, the family's new friends and acquaintances had discovered Berna's culinary gifts. They urged her to open a restaurant.

Their first location -- a defunct sub shop they resurrected in 2004 in the heart of Plant City's downtown historical district -- was a good one, though the closet-sized kitchen frustrated Erkan's vision of expanding the menu.

In 2008, The Sub Club closed and the Nars opened the Turquoise Mediterranean Grill in Plant City's Days Inn. Here, Berna found a commercial kitchen in which to create the grilled kebobs and Mediterranean specialties she'd longed to serve -- and Erkan found a canvas for his artistry, transforming the gloomy, cavernous space into something out of the Arabian Nights.

Filmy sheer fabric swathed the windows and turquoise paint bathed the walls. One of Erkan's impressive abstract paintings nearly filled one wall.

But what about the dark wood that paneled the restaurant's former bar? Erkan tackled the area with a brush and two cans of gold and turquoise paint, creating a striking abstract design.

"The motif that inspired me was late Roman and Turkish tiles in churches," he says. "It added something of our spirit to the restaurant. I wanted to add something from me."

Alas, the regular Days Inn clientele -- truckers rumbling past on Interstate 4, families on vacation, business travelers -- didn't know what to make of Mediterranean fare and Saturday night belly dancers. The deepening recession didn't help matters.

"It was a very bad location and a very bad time," says Berna. "I never liked that place. It never felt comfortable to me at all.''

Finding The Right Place

Enter Café Zuppino, which has garnered rave reviews and a dedicated following since its December debut in Lakeland.

"We feel that finally it is the right place and the right time,'' Erkan says.

Lakeland is more cosmopolitan, more businesslike, Berna says of her new clientele -- although many of her diehard customers still journey from Plant City for food they can get nowhere else.

Berna learned to cook from her mother and is fastidious about her ingredients.

The cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil not only must be Italian - it must come from the right part of Italy. She scours farmer's markets for herbs and spices. Dried mint is flown in from Turkey.

"I can't find good fresh mint leaves here," she says.

Virtually everything is made from scratch. Salad fixings are organic. Soups start in a stock pot. Baklava and Turkish ice cream are homemade.

"I just want to give people different, healthy foods. People with cholesterol problems can eat it. Vegetarians and meat-lovers can eat it."?
Somewhere between the stuffed grape leaves, crisp feta rolls, exotic soups and heaping platters of grilled chicken, there lies a story of fate, love and perseverance.

It was a match made in Ankara, arranged in 1994 by mutual friends who thought the two 30-something, never-married over-achievers might find something in common.

The whirlwind romance resulted in a wedding three months later, followed by two daughters in less than two years.

"When you get married late, you are in a rush," Berna says with a smile.

Setting Ambitious Goals

Daughter Beran, 14, is a freshman at Strawberry Crest High in Plant City. She is much like her mother in her early academic years -- driven to achieve.

Beran wants to be a neurologist and has set her sights on Harvard, then Johns Hopkins.

"This is her decision,'' her mother says. "She was always determined.''

Beril, 13, has her father's artistic leanings.  

"She's a talented painter, like Erkan,'' says Berna.

The Nars believe they've found the right place to nurture their daughters' aspirations.

"Here, if you do things right, you can reach out and be something -- doctor, artist, entrepreneur. I want my girls to be part of this,'' Erkan says.

It is a place that has given him the freedom to practice his art, which now hangs in a Plant City gallery.

More recently, Erkan has satisfied his creative urges producing the cozy ambiance of Café Zuppina, splashing the walls in sunny yellows and burnished golden olive hues. He varnished the light oak plank ceiling in a warm shade of dark chocolate. Outside, two flaming red bistro chairs beckon passersby.

Sandra Gray and her husband discovered the new eatery shortly after it opened. The fabulous food, she says, is what brought them there. The intimate setting, where diners from diverse backgrounds feel free to socialize with each other keeps bringing them back.

"In a culture where we're pretty much in a revolving door, it's pretty cool to have a place to go where you can stop and breathe,'' Gray says.

Jan Hollingsworth is a Valrico-based freelance writer working from a restored Victorian parsonage built in the mid-1880s for a Methodist circuit rider. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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