Among Fran Scibelli's many talents is her knack for reinventing herself.
The owner of Fran's Filling Station left her Springfield, Mass., home - and the Sunday Italian suppers her family enjoyed every week - to go to graduate school in California.
She started at the University of California, Berkeley, where she passed famed Chez Panisse on her way to classes each day. Her daily walk to campus also took her past a gourmet shop that tantalized her with its menu and prepared dishes.
"I got really interested in food," said Scibelli, 49. "I started making big dinners for my fellow students."
After transferring to Stanford University and obtaining a master's in history, Scibelli decided to get a law degree at Stanford and pursue a career in law.
But cooking remained a passion, fueled by the abundant farmers market near her home, which she says she "also loved from an aesthetic point of view."
Scibelli moved to Washington, D.C., in 1989 to work as an attorney by day, specializing in white-collar criminal defense for a D.C. law firm, and continued to cook and entertain in her spare time. She never grew disenchanted with the law but at some point it dawned on her that her profession should be devoted to what she most liked to do: cooking and entertaining.
Scibelli made the leap, both professionally and geographically, in 1994. Her brother, Frank Scibelli, had opened Mama Ricotta's several years earlier, the first of his many restaurants in Charlotte, and Scibelli, newly divorced, decided to move to Charlotte and try to make a career of cooking.
"I wanted to open the kind of restaurant I'd want to go to," said Scibelli, who did that by opening Metropolitan Café on Fairview Road in 1995.
"I loved everything about it: The way it looked, what we served, everything." So did Charlotteans, who Scibelli said had a huge desire for a contemporary restaurant.
Metropolitan Café was popular instantly, and Scibelli could have focused simply on running the successful restaurant, but it wasn't long before she took on a new challenge.
After a year-and-a-half of shipping in bread daily from an Asheville bakery because she couldn't find any she liked locally, Scibelli decided to open Metropolitan Bakery. She spent several months (and a good chunk of change) being trained by renowned baker Michael London, because, as Scibelli puts it, "cooking is intuitive, baking is not."
The bakery was not immediately as successful as the restaurant, but a 1996 Charlotte Observer article about the artisan bread movement sweeping the country did wonders for the business.
"From then on, people got it," said Scibelli. She sold her restaurant - now renamed Barrington's - in 2000 so she could focus exclusively on her bakery. At its peak, the bakery did more than $1 million in wholesale sales, including accounts with British Air, US Airways and Harris Teeter.
But when the recession hit after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the bakery took a major hit. When the lease came up for renewal, Scibelli decided it was time to take a break. She took time off, then spent a year as a consultant to a Dean & Deluca store in Napa, Calif., increasing the store's prepared-food sales 66 percent in the time she was there.
But Scibelli soon found herself coveting her own place again.
"I had a vision, and you can't execute your vision when you're running someone else's show," she said. She returned to Charlotte in 2007 with a firm idea of the kind of restaurant she wanted to open.
"I wanted it to be a warm, friendly place with diverse food, where you can fill your stomach and your spirit," she said. She opened Fran's Filling Station last spring.
Specializing in handcrafted food of all genres, with an emphasis on local ingredients, Fran's Filling Station is eclectic both in what it serves and in the clientele it attracts.
Scibelli said she wants people to feel cared for and to know she also really cares about every plate of food.
Whether it's the bacon-wrapped tater tots, crab cakes, fresh-made specialty sandwiches or the family-style brunch that brings them in, diners at Fran's Filling Station should feel thankful Scibelli once again felt a need to reinvent herself.