COZAD — Olive Garden might be out of reach, but there’s a popular, privately owned Italian restaurant only 53 miles west of Kearney.

And that’s not all. The owner of Bella Italia in Cozad said he’s thought many times about doing business in Kearney.

“I sure have thought about it. I need more customers, maybe a little more diversity,” said Mark Diaz, the chef and owner of Bella Italia. He’s owned the business for three years and said he would stack up his Italian food against the best in Nebraska.

Breads and sauces are made in-house, he uses fresh herbs and dry-ages the steaks. The menu includes pasta, pizza and grill dishes along with steaks and seafood.

“We try to do everything really fresh,” Diaz said. “If you want to eat the best seafood, bar none, come to Bella Italia and we’ll fix you up. Dry-aging a ribeye makes a phenomenal steak.”

He said the majority of his clientele drives for miles because they enjoy the quality and flavor of his dishes.

“We get a lot of people saying, ‘Wow, this restaurant belongs in a big city.’ They’re saying, ‘What is it doing out here in the middle of Nebraska?’” Diaz said. “I think we’re heads above Olive Garden. The big chains, a lot of their food is pre-done. The big chains aren’t going to bring in a talented chef.”

Opening a Kearney restaurant is appealing, Diaz said, because of the larger customer base. He said he needs about 40 diners per day. Some days there are more than 40, but other days there are fewer, and that makes it a struggle. “We get people from all over. When it’s busy it’s good, but there are days when they can’t get here, and we wish we had more of the local people from Cozad coming in.”

Bella Italia’s entrees average about $20, he said.

The thought of operating a restaurant in Kearney is appealing, Diaz said. “Financially I don’t know if it’s in the cards, but we offer such a great product, both service-wise and food-wise.”

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