Tag Archives: Elkhorn River

The Ortons

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

While most homeowners—especially married couples—decide to downsize in their 40s, 50s, or even their 60s, newlyweds Lucas and Andrea Orton opted to do so much earlier.

The Omaha couple had only been married four months when they left their 850-square-foot rental in midtown and began building a 280-square-foot house on wheels. By today’s tiny house standards, that’s slightly larger than most.

Lucas, 33, and Andrea, 34, love the outdoors. They met near the Elkhorn River and married there in May 2015. While camping at Lake Cunningham one morning, they noticed a number of RVs parked outdoors. It was then they began discussing their dream of tiny house living.

Neither Lucas nor Andrea watch much TV. They were not aware of the tiny house trend until they began researching their next steps online.


“We started looking into (tiny houses) and said, ‘Oh, wow. This is a thing,’” Andrea recalls.

Soon after, Lucas and Andrea hosted a garage sale at their midtown home. Organizing items for the garage sale was the first of what would be many eye-opening experiences of separating their stuff: what to keep and what to sell.

“We were literally pulling stuff out of the house for four hours,” Andrea explains. “And we’ve gotten rid of truckloads since the garage sale. One minute you’re saying, ‘I love this. I’m going to keep this.’ And eight months later, it’s ‘I don’t really love that.’”

In September of last year, construction of the Ortons’ tiny house began. Lucas quit his job as a sound engineer to pursue building the tiny house full-time. The couple moved in with Lucas’ father in northwest Omaha, first building the tiny house in the barn. Once the walls, roof, and windows were complete, they hitched the house to a truck and pulled it permanently outdoors. Friends and family unexpectedly showed up to witness the big (or should we say small?) move.


“Pulling it out of the barn and dealing with centimeters of clearance, it was like giving birth,” Andrea says with a grin.

The tiny house now sits a few hundred feet from the barn. Lucas works on the house just about every day, with their spunky French Bulldog/Boston Terrier mix, Gus, by his side. Lucas used to remodel houses, so mastering the basics proved fairly easy. The rest—such as plumbing and electrical—he learned how to do from blogs, websites and online videos.

When it is finished, the house will feature contemporary interior design, with white walls, dark flooring, and natural woods. LED lighting has been installed throughout, but an abundance of windows allows natural light to stream in during the day.

They plan to add a modular front porch, which will provide additional seating outdoors (weather permitting). 

For Lucas (an Omaha native) and Andrea (a Louisiana transplant), building and living in a tiny house has two primary purposes: consolidating their lifestyles and living without debt. The couple has budgeted around $30,000 for the project, and they have been paying for supplies and materials as they go. Most items were purchased locally at The Home Depot and Lowe’s, while others have been ordered online (including windows and the air conditioner). The house has standard electrical but has been wired for solar energy.

And while more is continually added inside (and outside) the house, the purging continues, which Andrea describes as “one crazy ride.”


She adds that getting rid of their belongings has been almost spiritual: “I like to shop, and I work in a retail environment. But even when I go to the store now, I don’t spend nearly as much or get nearly as much as I normally would because it’s not going to fit. We’ve been going through multiple stages of purge, just tapering, tapering, and it’s still too much.”

Lucas and Andrea’s worldly possessions now reside in eight large bins in their temporary bedroom.

At-Home-With-2“Well, that’s not completely true,” Andrea says after a brief pause. “There’s a little bit more spilling into another room, and I’m trying to reel that in. There’s a get-rid-of pile, and every day I’m adding to it.”

Lucas and Andrea continue to research other pieces of living in a (tiny) house on wheels, among them mail delivery and internet access. They eventually plan to purchase a large pick-up truck that will allow them to tow the house as needed, and even store larger items in the truck’s bed.

They expect to park their home at its current address, live in it through the winter, and move it elsewhere in 2017—likely on vacation while exploring parts of the United States.

For homeowners (and even apartment dwellers) intrigued by tiny house living, Lucas and Andrea have a bit of advice: Draft a lengthy list of pros and cons. Look at tiny houses online. Tour them if they’re nearby. Finally, minimalize and consolidate all belongings, and try to live in a single room. 

Visit tinyhouseswoon.com for more information. OmahaHomeAt-Home-With-3

That’s Amore

August 3, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Leo Fascianella was a poor Italian teenager from Sicily when he left home in 1972. He arrived in the United States with no English skills, $50 in his pockets, and a love for cooking. He sought a better life with better opportunities, and that’s what he found in Omaha.

After 14 years working in various roles at local restaurants, he opened his own business, Pasta Amore e Fantasia. The popular Rockbrook Village restaurant celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. “I thought it might last 10 years,” Fascianella says. “I never imagined 30 years.”

His culinary passion kicked in when he was about 5 or 6 years old. Every time his mom left the house, he’d hightail it into the kitchen. As a boy, he helped out in his grandparents’ small restaurant in Italy.

“I was always in and out of kitchens,” Fascianella says. And he’s still there, with no plans to leave anytime soon. “I love my job. I love it—the creativity of it.”

The chef and restaurateur takes satisfaction in seeing his guests enjoy the food that comes out of his kitchen, whether it is a plate of eggplant parmigiana, lasagna, cannelloni, tortellini, or another dish. In the restaurant’s early days, pasta and salads made up the bulk of the menu, but the offerings have grown over the years to include daily specials and several beef, chicken, and fish entrees.

LeoFascianella1Seafood dishes are among his favorites to prepare. At Pasta Amore, the seafood options include a lightly breaded calamari steak with a caper-lemon cream sauce, and linguine amore—mussels, clams, white fish, and shrimp over angel hair pasta with an herbed tomato broth, artichoke hearts, and spinach.

Many of the fresh herbs and vegetables that find their way into the restaurant’s menu items are grown by Fascianella and his wife, Pat. They plant basil, rosemary, oregano, sage, thyme, mint, and parsley at their Omaha home and at the restaurant. The couple also tend a vegetable garden at their family farm along the Elkhorn River.

Incorporating fresh, local produce and other ingredients whenever possible is important to Fascianella, whose cuisine combines a seasonal approach with traditional Italian flavors. He also strives to use the finest ingredients, whether it’s high-quality tomatoes, imported olive oil, or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

In addition to cooking and gardening, Fascianella enjoys fishing and spending time with his family. He and Pat married in 1989. They have an adult daughter and two adult sons. Pat helps run the restaurant, and the children have all worked there at one time or another.

Fascianella says he treasures moments such as gathering around the table with his wife and children to share Sunday meals. “My family makes me happy,” he says.

Traveling to his native Sicily at least once a year is another source of joy. The trips take him back to his roots and allow him to reconnect with relatives and immerse himself in the region’s world-famous food and wine. The annual trips also help spark new ideas for dishes to introduce at Pasta Amore.

In 2009, Fascianella was inducted into the Omaha Restaurant Association’s Hospitality Hall of Fame. What he enjoys most about working in the restaurant business is that it changes all the time. “If you want to innovate in business, you have to change.”

Omaha’s culinary scene is a lot different now than it was when Fascianella opened Pasta Amore three decades ago. Attitudes toward food have also changed. “People are more aware of food. There are lots of cooking shows. People are more interested in food and trying new things, not just your average spaghetti-and-meatballs,” he says.

For Fascianella, a willingness to adapt to changing consumer tastes and maintain an active role in the kitchen have been key to his restaurant’s success. “I’m in the kitchen. I cook my lunches and dinners, and the food is good.”

And he’s also proud of the fact that in his 30 years at Pasta Amore, he has never taken a sick day. The secret to staying healthy, he says, is good food and happiness. “You have to be happy in what you do.”

Now that’s amore.

Visit pastaamore.com for more information.

Their Own Private Sanctuary

June 10, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Tom and Dania Schleff’s beautiful, mission-inspired home in Elkhorn’s The Sanctuary is sprawling. At approximately 5,000 square feet, with four bedrooms and four-and-a-half bathrooms, the house is well set up for the couple’s visitors.

They even welcome some regular visitors who show up uninvited, bring a lot of friends, scavenge for food, and never express the least bit of gratitude for the hospitality.

“We’ve seen as many as 23 deer right in the backyard, and we see turkeys and foxes and skunks and owls,” Tom Schleff says. “We have a lot of wildlife.”


After all, The Sanctuary is a sprawling development surrounded by the Elkhorn River, and a mature forested area. The neighborhood also contains several large preserved common areas, and natural water features.

With a wall of large, south-facing windows, and a screened three-season porch perfect for morning coffee or evening cocktails, the Schleffs relish their year-round views of wildlife and nature. Tom says he enjoys the environment so much he doesn’t mind mowing the large lot (he uses a push mower, unlike most of the neighbors).   

“We love the trees. We’re on the outer edge of town, so we’re away from the hustle and bustle,” Tom Schleff says.

“And with that, the beautiful sky, whether you see the moonrise or sunset,” Dania Schleff adds. She says The Sanctuary, located near 190th and West Center Road, is far enough from the city to be free from most light pollution. “On a clear night, when you look straight up, the sky is full of stars,” Tom says.

The interior of the house reflects the Schleffs’ love of nature as well. Houseplants bring a touch of green to many of its rooms. Accents and art commonly represent themes relating to the great outdoors. The three-season room—one of Dania’s favorite spaces—has wood-paneled walls and comfortable wicker furniture. The house is decorated in warm, earthy tones with wood trim. Much of the house is furnished with pieces from Stickley, a furniture manufacturer known for simple designs, natural materials, and colorations that emphasize the beauty of wood.


“It’s not ornate or curvy,” Tom Schleff says, adding that the organic look of the furnishings nicely complements the home’s incredible site.

The away-from-it-all locale of the Schleff house is reminiscent of Tom Schleff’s upbringing in the Nebraska town of Morrill near the Wyoming border. By contrast, it’s a far cry from his wife’s early life. Dania Schleff, formerly Dania Inguanzo, arrived on American shores from Cuba on July 4, 1962. “The Fourth of July is a very special day for us,” she says. Her mother, three siblings, and the rest of the family relocated to Burwell, Nebraska, in January 1963.


“There we encountered snow for the first time…it was quite the shock,” Dania says. “The Nebraska people were very welcoming, and we were immersed in the culture and the language. Here we are years later.”

Nebraska proved to be a wonderful place for the family to start a new life. Dania followed in her mother’s footsteps to become a teacher. She taught elementary-level Spanish for many years, and is now retired. Higher education was an important goal instilled in her by her mother, and Dania and her siblings all earned advanced degrees, she explains. Higher education also led to another major life event: she met her future husband while both were attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (the Schleffs continue to enthusiastically follow Husker football today).

In 1981, Tom co-founded Professional Research Consultants, an Omaha-based healthcare research and marketing firm where he now serves as principal/senior vice president.

“I work in west Omaha, and it’s very easy for me commute to work,” he says, pointing out yet another advantage of living on the outskirts of town.


The Schleffs’ spacious home was designed with entertainment and visitors in mind. They especially enjoy hosting their family—daughter Jana and son-in-law Dustin Rose; and daughter Kendra, son-in-law Mark Kleinschmidt, and granddaughter Easton Emilia (whose middle name honors her Cuban great-grandmother). The house is welcoming and child-friendly, it also harbors one special feature especially appealing to young visitors.

“Behind a bookcase in the hall, we have a hidden staircase that leads to the upstairs level,” Diana says. “Right now we use it as a guest bedroom suite with a living room, but someday we’ll turn it into a grandkids’ fun space.”

The upstairs is a quiet area with the great room purposely set up without a television. The designated space for entertaining is in the home’s lower level, which features amenities including the TV and a bar. The home also includes a small workshop for Tom, which Dania jokingly refers to as his ‘man cave.’

The Schleffs are quick to credit the various professionals who helped them bring their ideas to life before and during the 2011 build.

“We couldn’t have done it without them,” Tom says. “A lot of people say that building a home is stressful, but it was the first home that we built, so maybe we were just naïve. It was very easy.”

Dania agrees, saying there was no stress or arguing involved. “It was pretty much a smooth process,” she says.


Rolling down the River

It’s summertime and that means parents are driving themselves crazy looking for fun, unique ways to spend a day outside with the kids. Gretchen Klimm has found her summer paradise. She loves soaking up the rays of summer while tubing down the Elkhorn River with her kids.

“It’s a great time because the river offers lots of exploring, both on and off the water. Kids are never afraid to jump in and pull you through the shallow water either,” Klimm says.

It is a trip made possible thanks to Brock Beran and his outfitter company, Tubing & Adventures. Besides providing a great experience for families, Beran says, he considers safety and protecting the environment his top priorities. “I want everybody to have a good time, but I also want everybody to be safe and take care of the river and not litter. Our company provides the tools and knowledge to do so,” he says.

“When we are on the water, Brock is just a phone call away in case of an emergency. And he has a way to get to you fast, if needed. As a mom, that’s very comforting,” Klimm says.

Beran has an airboat always “at-the-ready” and a lifetime of experience after spending his childhood summers at his family’s cabin on the Platte River.

Beran’s, who works as a civil engineer in his “day job,” recommends the “short float trip” as ideal adventure for families because groups float in a different part of the river from other, more rowdy groups. “It’s a good option for families who don’t want to be on that party scene,” he says.

Tubers meet at the designated parking lot along the river. From there, they are bused to the entry point. “Hop off the bus, hop in your group of tubes and start floating,” Beran says.

Wildlife enthusiasts will appreciate the chance to spot a lot of different critters during the float. “There’s a lot of turtles, a lot of fish. There’s also deer and bald eagles, blue herons, frogs and toads,” he says.

Klimm says that floating is all about having fun with family and friends on the water. “When the moment arrives that we spot the sand cliff off to the left, it’s game on. First one to the top wins! As challenging as it is, it’s a ton of fun,” she says.