It’s a little bit country: Myakka City basks in its rural flavor

No hat, no boots, no service.

So reads the sign at Myakka Kountry Kitchen.

It's in jest, of course, because city folk are also welcome -- with or without cowboy boots and hats.

Most of the customers at Myakka Kountry Kitchen and at Myakka City Grill are locals, folks who work on farms and ranches.

They like their community just the way that it is, a place where neighbors wave and help one another, and where there is plenty of living space.

Somehow, Myakka City escaped much of the real estate boom and bust that transformed Parrish and the Lakewood Ranch area.

Yet, Myakka City is changing, too.

It was a big deal when the Dollar General store opened, said Fire Chief Dan Cacchiotti.

In addition, the two eateries in town have new owners and new names,

Brian "Popeye" Slentz and

his sister, Chris Foy, are owners of Myakka Kountry Kitchen, which was formerly Susie Q's.

"We used to come in here three or four times a week to eat, and Susie said, 'Why don't you just buy the place?' " Slentz said.

In March, they did.

"It's pretty much the same menu and the good southern favorites," Slentz said.

Joann Martello bought Myakka City Tavern in February and changed the name to Myakka City Grill, to appeal more to families.

"People want good atmosphere and great home-cooked food," Martello said.

Martello got burned out working in the salon business for 35 years and was selling real estate when she began waiting tables in Myakka.

"The people are hard-working, everyday people. It's different from the suits that I was used to in Sarasota. It's fresh air to see that," Martello said of her customers.

Myakka represents fresh air to Cacchiotti as well.

A native of Warwick, R.I., Cacchiotti has lived in Florida since 1983 and joined the fire department in 1995 as a volunteer.

"I came out here to get away from the rat race. I just want to lead a peaceful life with my family and a few animals," Cacchiotti said.

At one time he admits to wanting to see Myakka City transformed.

"My attitude changed and, you know, I like it the way that it is," he said.

Myakka City Fire Control District was established in 1986 as a Manatee County dependent district. The district reaches to the DeSoto and Hardee county lines and covers a 230-square-mile area. It is a rural area with only about 8,000 residents, Cacchiotti said.

Being one of the few governmental entities in the area, the fire department is something of an information clearing house for visitors and residents alike.

Frequently, a caller will say they are thinking of moving to Florida and will ask for the phone number for city hall or the police department, Cacchiotti said.

Cacchiotti will then explain that the community is unincorporated and that local government is provided by the county commission, and law enforcement by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.

While Myakka neighbors do look out for one another, Cacchiotti, Rose Riggle and Kelly Lanza decided something else was needed to help meet community needs.

Three years ago, they co-founded the Myakka City Foundation.

The mission statement: "We exist as a Myakka City community-based support system, dedicated to those families and people in need financially due to life threatening illness, chronic illness, or major accident requiring significant medical assistance."

Foundation directors see their work as honoring the tradition of neighbor helping neighbor.

Riggle and her husband, Allen, moved to the Myakka City area in 2000, wanting their children to grow up in the wide-open spaces of the country.

Rose Riggle founded the Myakka City Relay for Life several years ago. She has a stake in finding a cure for cancer, because her daughter, Leah Riggle, is a cancer survivor.

The 15-year-old Lakewood Ranch High School student was diagnosed with Wilms' tumor on both kidneys 10 years ago.

"That's how I met a lot of people out here," Rose Riggle said of her experience with Relay for Life.

"The community really came together. We kind of watch out for each other even though we are really spread out. People accept you as family, and it's a nice feeling," she said.

With the response that Relay for Life received, Riggle, Lanza and Cacchiotti believed that the Myakka City Foundation would be embraced as well.

"We have had great feedback. A lot of the long-time residents are very supportive," Riggle said.

Last year, the foundation organized and hosted a health fair, which is expected to become an annual event. Also planned is a Christmas party for under-privileged children.

"We are trying to help people who are struggling because of health issues. We would like to make our health fair a lot larger. Last year we offered free flu shots. We can do this," Riggle said.

It's all in the Myakka neighborly tradition.

"If your neighbor hears that your lawnmower is broken, they'll offer to bring theirs over," said Allen Riggle. "These people out here will stop by and ask if they can lend a hand. It makes it a better life."