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Quick Chat With The Twisted Sicilian

After developing an avid following at local office buildings and special events with her funky food truck The Twisted Sicilian, Chea Smith Carmack put on the brakes this summer and opened an Italian market and restaurant in the heart of Franklin.

If you’ve eaten from an Italian-themed food truck in the Indy area in the last few years, chances are it was The Twisted Sicilian, a lunchtime standard at office parks, festivals, and outdoor events with an avid following for its meatball subs and rich eggplant parm sandwiches. But after years of working around the limits of a mobile kitchen, owner Chea Smith Carmack now has a full-scale kitchen where she can offer not just one but three different salads, as well as local her own peanut butter and fig jam alongside an array of local gourmet products. She also has a bit more downtime to chat with customers, and she recently took some time to answer a few questions about what it’s like to be cooking in one place after roaming the Indy area for the past several years.

What’s the restaurant life like now that you’ve parked the food truck?
It’s so great actually getting to see the customers eat your food. In the truck, it was always “Here’s your food, see you later.” Now I can actually go out and chat with the customers and get a sense of what they like. I also can really showcase all that I do, from offering a range of salads to having several desserts like my tiramisu and my cannoli cookies. I also have set up a market where I sell Indiana Pickle Company products—they share the facility I’m in with me—Frittle, and BeeFree’s famous Warrior Mix, as well as our vodka sauce and pans of our lasagna. That was stuff I could only dream of in the truck.

What are some things you didn’t expect with a brick-and-mortar restaurant?
It’s been a challenge figuring out the volume. We’re still figuring out the busiest days and what things our regulars want the most. So I’ve been going the restaurant supply a lot lately. In the truck, you knew your audience and knew how much to have on hand. It’s also still just my family and me doing the work, so it’s been a lot of long hours. Some of our customers think that because we’re Italian we’re a sit-down place with red-checkered tablecloths. They call for reservations. But we have just around a dozen seats, and we’re trying to meet the needs of a modern customer who wants something quick or something to take home for dinner. We’re slowly letting people know that we’re different.

What took you to Franklin?
We had been looking for a restaurant space for some time, and of course we looked in Indy. But the costs just were too high, and the buildouts seemed like more than we wanted to get into. We have a few friends in Franklin, and the city was giving incentives for businesses to open. When a former Marco’s Pizza became available, we knew it was a good fit. There was a kitchen ready to use with a hood. That was $50,000 we didn’t have to spend. They took the pizza oven out, but we don’t do pizza here. There are plenty of places that do that already in Franklin. It’s been great being here, and people are ready for more mom and pop places instead of chains. We’re even looking for houses so we don’t have the 25-minute drive home.

What plans do you have for when you’ve been open a few months?
We’ve got a line out the door most days right now, and the phone is ringing off the hook with takeout orders. So we’ve got our hands full. I like to joke that we’re an Italian restaurant piggy backing on a Chinese takeout. But we’re looking forward to next spring when we hope to have our liquor license and are planning some outdoor seating. You don’t get to innovate and change all the time when you’re just a food truck.

Where did you learn your greatest lessons about the food business?
I used to work at a hotel restaurant out on Shadeland. We had a huge waitstaff, salad bar, and buffet business. It was a lot of headaches, but it taught me so much about dealing with volume and working with a large staff. But some of my most important lessons came from when I worked at Steak ‘n’ Shake. People really underestimate what you can learn from a place like that, but my manager was just a really smart guy. I still close out my register every night the way that he did.

Where does your love of Italian food come from?
My family is Sicilian, and there are a lot of us. Both of my parents have parents from Sicily. It was a big, loud Sicilian family, and there was always food, as well as great stories about relatives—some of them pretty scandalous. But I just love the way that Italian food is all about simplicity and great ingredients. That’s why I’m trying to source as much locally so that I have great, fresh ingredients that I don’t have to do that much with. My customers really love that they can come in and see me rolling the meatballs and know that nothing comes pre-made off a truck.

Are you still working the truck?
I’ve done a couple of catering events that I had scheduled before we opened the new shop. But I don’t think I’ll be getting the truck out for a while. But our truck fans have found us. I’d say at least 10 to 15 percent of our customers are people who have eaten our food from the trucks. And now they can have a much wider variety of dishes and know that we won’t likely run out. We had a woman who came to the truck once who wanted our Fig Nutty peanut butter and fig jam sandwich but we were out of peanut butter. She stormed off because she couldn’t get the sandwich. I don’t miss that, and it’s great to be at a place where the supplies last a lot longer.

A graduate of IU’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, Terry Kirts hails from a town in Illinois so small it didn’t have a restaurant until he was in the 8th grade. Since 2000, he’s more than made up for the dearth of eateries in his childhood, logging hundreds of meals as the dining critic for WHERE Indianapolis, Indianapolis Woman, and NUVO before joining Indianapolis Monthly as a contributing editor in 2007. A senior lecturer in creative writing at IUPUI, Terry has published his poetry and creative nonfiction in a number of literary journals and anthologies, including Gastronomica, Alimentum, and Home Again: Essays and Memoirs from Indiana, and he’s the author of the poetry collection To the Refrigerator Gods, published by Seven Kitchens Press in 2011.
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