An Italian concept in NoDa with a notable beverage program
November 3, 2023
Now the owner of Fat Cat Burgers + Bakeshop, Scibelli was a pioneer in artisan fare
By Ebony Morman
While Fat Cat Burgers + Bakeshop has been open since 2021, restaurateur Fran Scibelli’s contributions to Charlotte’s culinary scene date back to nearly 30 years ago. Scibelli — who previously practiced law as a white collar defense attorney in Washington, D.C. — was initially inspired by her brother, Frank Scibelli, following his opening Mama Ricotta’s in 1992. She was intrigued by his experiences, which got her excited about exploring a new path in Charlotte.
Armed with her Italian heritage and knowledge gleaned from Northern California’s food culture, in which fresh produce was consistently utilized, Scibelli opened Metropolitan Cafe in SouthPark in 1994 — less than a year after relocating to Charlotte. One of its distinguishing characteristics was the restaurant’s artisan bread, which was shipped on a bus from Asheville until Scibelli was motivated to open her own artisan bakery, Metropolitan Bakery.
“There are a lot of people who don’t remember it, but I brought my oven from France with a Frenchman to build it,” Scibelli says. “I had to have that oven [met national safety and sustainability standards] and I had to learn every single aspect of that business, as well as take an empty hardware store and turn it into an absolutely beautiful, charming space with the assistance of one of my servers, who was a designer.”
It’s this kind of innovation that may be difficult to imagine now that artisan bread and farm-to-table are certainly more popular. But Metropolitan Bakery and, more specifically, Metropolitan Cafe — a modern restaurant that served sea bass and also delicious meatloaf — were the first of its kind in Charlotte. After nearly six years in business, Scibelli sold the cafe to Bruce Moffett in 2000, and turned the concept into Barrington’s. The bakery closed its doors in 2004, ending Scibelli’s decade-long run as a restaurant owner in Charlotte — however, it wouldn’t be long before she was back in business.
After spending a couple of years working for Dean and DeLuca in Napa, California, Scibelli returned to Charlotte, offering private catering and eventually opening Fran’s Filling Station in Dilworth in 2009. The neighborhood staple served chicken milanese, fig, goat cheese, and brie flatbread, and more to the for more than a decade before undergoing a rebranding in 2021 to become Fat Cat Burgers + Bakeshop. The pandemic and a reunion with one her fellow bakers from Metropolitan bakery spurred the change.
“I probably took some flack from some of my older customers, but I felt like as much as I love Fran’s, it really spoke to a feeling of intimacy and comfort,” she says. “I felt like I could offer that in a very similar way. So, I really wanted the same food and the same quality of food, in a bit more casual environment.”
At the quaint, family-friendly bakery and eatery, patrons can find fresh items, prepared with an acute attention to detail, especially when it comes to the bread, which is made in-house. For Scibelli, who goes to the farmers market at least once a week and whose pastries are influenced by the seasons, it isn’t a unique concept.
“I wouldn’t want to serve what I don’t want to eat,” she says. “I was raised in a way where we had great food. My mother is a great cook, as you can see from two children who went into the hospitality business. So, I wanted to run everything the same way and also give people a good time.”
While the community hasn’t responded to Fat Cat as well as they did to Fran’s Filling Station, Scibelli has noticed an influx of families dining at the restaurant, which contributes to the neighborhood ambiance, she says. Guests love the burgers and the bacon-wrapped tater tots, which also appeared on the Fran’s menu. The glaze includes rosemary, maple, and black pepper. “It’s familiar and delicious and sort of indulgent, but combined with some slightly more sophisticated flavors,” she says. “They’re enduringly popular.”
Scibelli, who enjoys connecting with people, admits that her journey in the restaurant business has been tough, but it’s her hands-on approach that has helped her adapt and endure for decades. It would be nearly impossible to run a business otherwise, she says. This approach allows her to see and conquer challenges and consistently interact with guests. It’s also an approach that has been a problem for growth because of Scibelli’s commitment to details and desire to oversee most dishes. However, she enjoys the intimacy.
Over the years, Scibelli’s learned many lessons in business. However, in recent years, she’s come to understand the importance of marketing, especially with social media’s popularity. When she first entered the industry, word of mouth alone resulted in Metropolitan Cafe having a line out the door each night for five years.
“It’s very different,” she says. “You’re expected to market and do social media and based on my age, it’s not something that’s intuitive to me. I just try to stick with quality, I try to make the food as delicious as I can consistently. I do think people will always, if they love the food, they will always come back.”
Scibelli’s hope is for diners to taste the love that’s in the food, she says.
“Ordinary, to me, is a bad word,” she says. “ It’s definitely not something that I seek out or try to achieve. If I achieved the ordinary, then I’m certainly disappointed in myself. I’m trying to give people something that is better than the ordinary.”
As one of the participants in the upcoming Founders Feast, which takes place on Nov. 8, Scibelli’s looking forward to connecting with colleagues like Gene Briggs and Bruce Moffett as well as chefs who are new to the industry. It’s nice to be recognized, she says.