Where the Money Goes

Sometimes you just want to hang with people who sip champagne through surgically enhanced lips

It's not like my friend Kyle and I aren't open to new things. In fact, on the way to the grand opening of Pazzo's Cucina Italiana and Lounge, a chain restaurant imported from Chicago, we were discussing that very thing — how our flexibility had let us, in his words, "date along the gender spectrum." But we still couldn't get down with the scene just a few blocks west of the 17th Street Causeway bridge.

The people here had either (a) an assload of money or (b) the conspicuous desire to have an assload of money. Kyle and I had neither. Instead, we had budgets that could benefit from the free food and booze promised on the event flier, as well as some curiosity about the new place, which took over the space that was formerly Tara's Steakhouse.

Owner Rocco Aiyash gutted the venue in September and reopened it 28 days later. A large, lovely fish tank at the end of the bar was the only aquatic element that attested to the yacht-aholism of the affluent area. Otherwise, the design focus was the room's many flat-screen TVs. Aiyash, a Chicago restaurateur and general contractor who now calls South Florida home, explained that his businesses are "driven by the market, not by the concept." The market, he said, demands a mashup of restaurant and "video and music in a lounge atmosphere." Since Pazzo's holds "the only 4 a.m. license on 17th Street" and serves food until 3 a.m., he was sure the place would be a hit among the target demographic: 28- to 50-year-olds.

Aiyash's son and business partner, Matt, a DVD DJ, was mixing the music and visuals to appeal to that audience. The father had promised " '70s, '80s, and '90s music without getting into hip-hop." But the 23-year-old was already revising that vision by throwing stuff like the 2006 release "Shake and Pop" by Green Velvet into the mix.

I'll give DJ Matty Boy his props. Besides his high-quality sound system, he's damned good looking. This helped to temporarily occupy Kyle, who soon realized that there was little for a gay 20-something to enjoy at Pazzo's. The only sausage he'd be getting here was served with peppers on the free buffet.

"This is where old silicone goes to die," Kyle snarked after a survey of the room full of bulging bosoms.

To be fair, what is "old" to a 22-year-old isn't even "slightly used" to some of the rest of us. But still, he had one thing right — it was a mature crowd, and some had been surgically altered to disturbing effect. I enter into evidence a woman he called "Duck Lips," whose bosom, nose, and lips looked to have undergone significant redesign — sort of like Pazzo's itself.

The new Pazzo's construction included two dining areas and a large lounge space with a two-sided bar. The place was decorated with iridescent tile accents, a polished granite bar top, blue bistro lights, flickering votives, and — what everyone kept referring to as "the entertainment" — the flat-screen televisions.

The grand opening had drawn the filthy rich, despite the restaurant's moderate prices and ersatz entertainment. Linda Baker, a resident of the nearby ritzy waterfront community Rio Vista and, in her words, "a socialite," thought Pazzo's was just what the neighborhood needed.

"On the east side [of Fort Lauderdale] here, it needs some spice, some nightlife, and this is where it's gonna be," Baker speculated.

The socialite also boasted about knowing an even richer neighbor "who had the biggest house in all Fort Lauderdale" and whose Bentley she'd followed over in her flame-decorated golf cart with the all-terrain tires. The big shot was John Cahalin, who made news when his waterfront mansion sold for $17 million. If anyone knew nightclubbing, it was Cahalin, who'd just sold the upscale China White in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

"When it comes to Florida, nightclubs are a thing of the past," Cahalin opined. "Nobody goes to nightclubs anymore. It's where people go to get picked up, and it makes everyone uncomfortable. Here — in a restaurant/lounge setting — everyone is here for a good time. This is the concept that is working in every other market."

Several women who'd been at a fundraiser were now drinking champagne at one of the high tops with Baker, who seemed to be their leader. Kyle chatted them up, reporting back that Baker's devotees summed up the scene as "fun" and "pleasant with a lot of TVs." But they wondered where they'd find room to dance among all the high-top tables. Eventually, a small group managed to reintroduce the handclap as a legitimate dance move.

Kyle was bored. The lady with the startling lips had gotten a nosebleed, and Cahalin had broken up a shoving match in the parking lot. But that wasn't enough action for Kyle. I couldn't leave, though, until I got the story on the young blond in the gold dress who was gazing blankly into space while her mature escort sat silently next to her.

Despite the apparently medicated serenity, she was surprisingly coherent when I introduced myself. The two, she said, had met on a "cruise to nowhere," a "very Sex Pistols-type party." Citing her preference for luxurious digs like South Beach's the Setai, she gave Pazzo's credit because "the setup is great, the music is fabulous, and the entertainment is awesome." She sounded like a promoter, but her line of work was "personal trainer slash life coach," she said with a slight Russian accent.

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