By Chauncey Mabe
Photography by James Arbogast
Much has changed on the Fort Lauderdale restaurant scene since Chef Angelo Elia opened Casa D’Angelo 18 years ago. Food has grown more sophisticated, for one thing. “People don’t want mush pasta, ” he says. “They know there’s more to Italian cuisine than meatballs.” The price point has changed, too, as discerning diners are more willing to pay for high-quality fare. “Food is pricey,” Elia says. “My cost is high.” A few things, though, have stayed the same.
Every day at lunch, for example, Elia’s staff of 50 breaks for a family meal prepared by the same kitchen that will later cook the dinners for the paying guests. “We do a family meal at all my restaurants,” Elia says. “I’m not watching the cost. They work hard. We all work hard. The dishwasher works as hard as anyone. That’s why I pay him $12 an hour.” Call it management, family-style.
Another ritual that has not changed: Elia’s wife and manager, Denise, comes in at midmorning to start her day. Elia rises immediately to the espresso machine. Only he is allowed to make her first coffee. “His coffee is good,” she says with a smile. “I tell Angelo that if the worst comes, I don’t want alimony. I’ll settle for espresso.”
This building of intentional community has enabled Elia to create a small but slowly growing empire of fine Italian restaurants (top Zagat and Wine Spectator ratings the past 12 years) in South Florida. From the original Casa D’Angelo at 1201 N. Federal Highway, Elia expanded to locations in Boca Raton and Paradise Island, Bahamas, with two more planned for Miami-Dade County. He also has four D’Angelo Pizza restaurants, what he jokingly calls “low end.”
Kelly Zacharias, his PR and events coordinator, quickly interjects, “Casual dining, Angelo. Casual dining. We don’t say ‘low end.’” Elia shrugs. “Whatever. It’s a true Italian pizza. We have people come in five days a week. You can have a beautiful dinner for $15 to $20 a person.” Compare that to Casa D’Angelo, where the menus do not even list prices.
Elia credits his passion for family and food to his mother, his best and toughest teacher. “My mother was the person who taught me to make sauces,” he says. ”She taught me the secret to sauce is in the stock.” By age 11, Elia was cooking in the family restaurant near Naples, Italy, where he learned the “rustic Tuscan with accents of Southern Italian” cuisine he prepares today. He attended culinary school in the old country, but at 14, he went to New York to visit an uncle—and did not return to Italy for 10 years.
“I wanted out of school,” Elia says. “I wanted to do things myself.” He started at the bottom of the Italian restaurant food chain in Manhattan, working 14 hours a day. By 16, he had risen to line cook; and by 19, he had earned his own kitchen. Over the 16 years he was in New York, he worked at such famous establishments as the Four Seasons in Manhattan and Long Island’s La Cisterna. His work was recognized repeatedly by The New York Times, where one critic sighed, “Finally, a chef who can make sauce!”
As he approached 30, and with a divorce behind him, Elia was ready for a change. Vacationing in Fort Lauderdale, he saw “a lot of potential.” Soon, he had moved here, working as executive chef at H2O Café and as corporate chef for Prezzos, opening new restaurants. It was during this period that his staff began following him whenever he moved.
Today, Elia boasts wait staff and cooks who have been with him for “13 or 14 years.” One server, Sandro Triglia, has worked for Elia for 25 years, and now has taken on Elia’s unofficial title of “manager of everything.” Unlike some restaurants, Elia keeps his staff employed not only during the busy winter season, but the slow summer as well. “No one ever comes to me to ask for a raise,” Elia says. “They know if they work hard, they will get paid well.”
Since Elia first opened Casa D’Angelo, competition in Fort Lauderdale has grown fierce. He changes the interior design of the restaurant every three to four years, “so it always seems like a new place.” He’s always on the hunt for that special new menu item. He sends his chefs to Italy, and maintains one of the greatest wine lists in the country with 15,000 bottles. That hard work and attention to detail pay off handsomely in guest loyalty. In fact, many guests are members of the Casa D’Angelo family.
“We have guests who call in for reservations with only their first names,” Denise says. “They come at the same time, on the same day of the week, and sit at the same table as 14 years ago.”
Denise, who wandered to South Florida from her native Brazil without much of a plan, met Elia when she applied for a job at a restaurant. “For him, it was love at first sight,” she says. “For me, it was love at first bite. It seems like yesterday, not 25 years ago.”
After all these years, all his accolades and success, Elia still works 14 hours a day, seven days week. With their two children almost grown, Denise works a similar schedule. “It doesn’t feel like working when you love what you do,” she says. Elia says, “Our life is work, work, work.” He pauses. “It is beautiful.”
Originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue.