After five years of serving authentic and fresh Mexican and Cuban food, Cielo Cocina is closing its doors.
For owner Mariela Petroski, everything has always been about family. The restaurant is open for limited hours on Tuesday through Friday, so Petroski is home to cook for her family. Her kids are often in the restaurant helping and sometimes she’ll open later to attend a meeting at her kids' school. Now, her focus on family is taking her back to Los Angeles, where she has a son about to become a police officer and a young grandchild she wants to spend time with.
“Cielo’s has never been about making a buck,” she said. “It’s been about sharing my love of cooking and my culture.”
Leaving Cielo and Helena behind will be bittersweet for the Petroski family, who moved here in 2003 from Los Angeles. Petroski’s husband, Andrew, was working in California as an engineer for Verizon and had the opportunity to transfer to Montana.
Petroski spent her first few years in Helena raising her kids, working occasionally as a personal chef and writing a food column for the Independent Record.
But when she saw a sign advertising a space for lease across from Benny’s Bistro, Petroski and her husband decided to open Cielo.
“I’ve cooked since I was really young,” she said. “But I’d never even worked in a restaurant before. It was my little dream.”
She grew up cooking with her mom and went to Mexico for several months each summer to live with her grandma, who purchased fresh food and cooked from scratch. Petroski remembers her grandma always had beans on the stove. She would run across the street with a quarter to a tortilla factory and return with a fresh stack for her grandma to cook with.
Now cooking with certain ingredients reminds her of her family and her own childhood.
“Food just brings people together,” she said.
While she was confident in her cooking, Petroski knew that restaurants are the businesses most likely to fail. So she created Cielo with short hours around lunchtime, and hoped customers would understand the time and effort it takes to make fresh food.
She said customers are often disappointed when Cielo is out of guacamole because the avocados aren’t ripe. But Petroski said she’d rather tell people no than buy frozen avocados and always have it. It also took time before people realized that she can’t make more of some menu items, like carnitas, if she runs out. The meat takes 14 hours to cook.
“Everything is made fresh everyday,” she said. “When you mass produce, the freshness goes out the window.”
After a while, Petroski said the community was willing to support her limited hours and understood her food was about quality, not convenience.
“They supported my little dream and were understanding that my family was always going to come first,” she said.
She also didn’t try to expand or take on big catering projects. Petroski said she said yes to catering only one wedding. When she tried to decline, the couple said they had their first date at Cielo. The couple eats there often, and Petroski still has their thank-you card hanging up.
“I made sure it was just like if they came in here on a Thursday,” she said.
Since announcing on the Cielo Facebook page the restaurant would close in May, several people offered to buy it. Petroski considered their offers, but her menu items aren’t made from recipes. She worries the recipes and the feel of the restaurant couldn’t be replicated.
“I’m just afraid it wouldn’t be the same,” she said. “Cielo is me. My family is Cielo.”
Petroski said she’ll miss the people most when her family leaves Helena.
“People here just make my day,” she said.
While Cielo will be gone, Petroski said she plans to share a few of her recipes on the Cielo Facebook page for people to make at home.
Cielo’s location at 105 E. 6th Ave. will be filled by a new restaurant, but Petroski couldn’t say what would be moving in.