By Christie Galeano-DeMott
Photography by Felipe Cuevas
With the last rattle of cocktail shakers and chefs’ knives packed up, South Floridians have mourned the loss of a few epic restaurants in the last year. But when a beloved staple rises from the ashes, the sting is replaced by rejuvenated excitement. While Canyon Southwest Cafe’s original mustard-yellow façade has adorned Sunrise Boulevard for nearly three decades, it was time for a change. Known for its Southwest-inspired cuisine and beloved for its Prickly Pear Margarita, the restaurant announced its temporary closure last July, and news of its subsequent relocation rippled through the community. Would signature dishes like the cornmeal-crusted poblano bursting with creamy herb goat cheese or the white chocolate bread pudding still taste the same or even remain on the menu?
Chef Chris Wilber and partner Mario DiLeo have experience in starting from scratch. In 1994, while still in their 20s, the shrewd businessmen took over the space that held the now-defunct Italian restaurant La Perla after the passing of DiLeo’s uncle—who co-owned the eatery with DiLeo’s father—and revamped it into Canyon. Throughout the years, the 2,900-square-foot restaurant with a cramped bar space that only seated 10 kept expansion top of mind for Wilber and DiLeo. Pre-pandemic, the duo discussed moving Canyon into the location where tapas restaurant One Door East resided and even considered managing its neighboring eatery, Valentino Cucina Italiana. When COVID-19 brought the world to a stop, these conversations temporarily halted, but the two friends still saw an opportunity to expand Canyon while completely rebranding a classic.
It’s a vision that’s been percolating in Wilber’s mind for years. Growing up as a wayfaring “military brat,” as he describes himself, whose parents were cooking enthusiasts, he vividly recalls his family embracing each community’s culture—from Southern fare to classic New England dishes—and honoring those traditions at the dinner table. That love for regional cuisine still lives within the 53-year-old; he revels in learning about how certain foods or dishes evolved throughout history to ingrain themselves in contemporary cuisine. Wilber’s provincial passion continued to develop in culinary school, and his focus further narrowed in on Italy through his cooking experiences in New England and working under DiLeo’s uncle at La Perla. So, when Valentino Cucina Italiana closed last summer, the partners agreed Wilber’s expertise in Italian cuisine and DiLeo’s Italian heritage would reign supreme in the creation of their new restaurant: Primadonna.
Wilber’s goal with Primadonna is to serve simple fare made from quality ingredients, including renowned San Daniele prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella straight from Italy. But he insists he’s not married to only serving Italian dishes, just as Canyon’s menu takes inspiration from the Southwest but also features tuna tartare served with crispy yucca chips and grilled jumbo sea scallops on a poblano-lime plantain hash with a chipotle-honey glaze. Blending, including mixing his fascination with chiles and his love of seafood, keeps Wilber inspired.
When asked if working the line at two restaurants can be taxing, the 38-year kitchen veteran’s kind gray-green eyes twinkle as he jokes that he’s starting to develop runner’s legs. Canyon’s capacity jumped from 62 seats at the original Sunrise Boulevard spot to 128 at its new location alongside Primadonna. Add in Primadonna’s 88 seats, and it’s a huge undertaking.
While managing two restaurants under one roof, Wilber has seen Canyon regulars unable to betray the staple chile-infused dishes—which are still front and center on the menu—curiously take a seat at Primadonna’s bar to sample a dish, such as Wilber’s classic carbonara served with crispy pancetta, before heading over to Canyon for that rosy, tart and always boozy prickly pear margarita coupled with tacos. There was such a demand for Canyon’s white chocolate and Chambord custard bread pudding at its sister restaurant that the Primadonna kitchen’s team created its own version: an amaretto-infused bread served with a vanilla semifreddo and topped with amaretto-toasted almond caramel sauce. The decadent dessert has lured even some of the most loyal Canyon patrons to Primadonna’s tables. Wilber sees it as a fun rivalry between his two restaurant teams.
Wilber has worked with some of his staff for years—his bartenders and several of his waitstaff have been with him for more than 15 years—and it’s that camaraderie and collaborative atmosphere balanced with respect, trust and communication that ensure consistency in DiLeo’s front-of-house and in both of Wilber’s kitchens.
“When people come in, they know what they’re going to get,” Wilber says. “They know what it’s going to taste like, look like, feel like—every single time.” Consistency, reliability and camaraderie have also kept Wilber and DiLeo’s friendship intact after nearly 30 years. Wilber was DiLeo’s best man at his 2005 nuptials, and their families spend holidays together.
Inside Canyon now, one can find traces of the old One Door East restaurant. Wilber attributes holdovers, like the James Dean mural, to the quick two-month turnaround he and his team had to get Canyon and Primadonna opened simultaneously last August. Still, there’s a renewed sense of space, thanks to the expansive dining rooms, Canyon’s upgraded kitchen from a submarine-esque cave to a spacious sunlit suite, Primadonna’s center-of-the-world kitchen and some very noticeable—and much appreciated—breathing room. Aside from that, nothing else has changed for Wilber—except that Canyon is now closed on Sundays, giving Wilber a well-deserved chance to catch his breath too.
Originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue.