by KRISTEN SENZ
With $5,000 they borrowed from a friend, Patrick and Marina Fiore started Le Petit Café on West Sixth Street in 1977. The ingredients: second- hand equipment, new china, and 11 wooden tables built by hand.
Marina, originally from Italy but raised in Paris, cooked the French dishes her mother had made, becoming more comfortable and creative in the kitchen over time. Patrick, who lived in France until the couple immigrated in 1973, handled the business.
“We were doing something very gutsy to try to serve French food on the wrong side of the tracks,” Marina says.
At that time, the people of Bloomington were hungry for something new. Home-cooked meals with European flair, selected from a short, hand-scrawled menu and served in a rustic, romantic setting proved a successful recipe, says Marina.
The Fiores later purchased the adjoining building and added a new dining room, gourmet kitchen, and a second floor, where they could live and raise their two children.
“We’ve always shared the same vision of what we wanted the restaurant to be,” says Marina. “The goal was to have a job we could do together, to have a family, and to move above the restaurant. Everything was one thing—the work, the family, and the restaurant.”
In 2009, after the downtown section of the B-Line Trail was completed, Marina began serving small plates—crepes, croissants, quiches—from the restaurant’s back window on Saturday mornings. It’s her favorite part of the week. “I’m going to keep my Saturday morning window as long as I can stand on my two feet,” she says.
Through the pandemic, Marina and Patrick kept busy with their own projects: She wrote a book—titled Not a Cookbook— about her life and work in the restaurant business; he tiled the restaurant’s kitchen, including the ceiling.
Maybe the Fiores will retire in a few years when Marina turns 70, but maybe they won’t. “It’s not just a restaurant,” Marina says, “It’s our friends. It’s basically like having your friends come to your home and then they give you money. How good is that?”
One thing they learned from COVID-19 is that, especially in the restaurant business, it’s best not to make future plans.
“Like Bob Dylan used to say, we’re ‘freeeeee-wheelin’,’” Patrick says, laughing.
Marina smiles with her eyes. “I like that,” she says.