The new steak and seafood "destination" on Las Olas Boulevard called Riley McDermott's opened on January 25, 2008, with grand expectations.
The restaurant boasted $4 million in renovations, including "river slate and hardwood floors, blue and green mosaic tiles, a 10-foot crystal chandelier and dramatically high ceiling," according to the Miami Herald in a story in May 2008, which called it the "hottest reservation in Fort Lauderdale." A lot was made of the restaurant's lineage to celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, whose nephew, Jason Cotter, took over as general manager and whose former sous chef, Trent Osborn, was named executive chef. Actress Lorraine Bracco made an appearance there, showing off her new line of wines.
But the restaurant -- named for the 17-year-old son of owner Anthony McDermott -- wasn't long for the world, mainly due to its location. And by that, I mean it was on the main floor of the Bank of America Building at 401 Las Olas Blvd., 6 floors beneath Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler, the law firm owned by big-spending attorney and Ponzi scheme artist Scott Rothstein, who was determined to snap up the place and turn it into Bova Prime.
By April 2008, Rothstein was already making advances on the property. And while both Rothstein and McDermott had spent a lot of money shining up their respective businesses and images, the lawyer's takeover of Riley McDermott's quickly took on the feel of a street war, full of threats, violence, and gunplay.
Fort Lauderdale police were called out to the place at least twice, once when guns were drawn by
Rothstein bodyguards Bobby Scandiffio and Jose Morales. Another time, there was a physical altercation between McDermott and another Rothstein bodyguard, Joe Alu.
Rumors have swirled that McDermott was beaten up by Rothstein's so-called "goon squad" and fled the country to live in Costa Rica. Alu, who is still guarding Rothstein's wife, Kim, says that isn't true.
He said that in one incident after the handover of the restaurant on September 12 of last year, McDermott came into the restaurant claiming loudly that Rothstein "stole" his restaurant. Alu says McDermott was angry and had been drinking. I haven't been able to contact McDermott, so we don't know his side of the story yet.
"McDermott was running around the restaurant yelling, 'I can't believe this kike Jew stole my fucking restaurant," Alu told me.
Fort Lauderdale police were called, and Alu and Rothstein waited outside for them to arrive when McDermott spotted the lawyer, said Alu.
He clenched his fist and jumped at Scott, so I grabbed him by the throat," said Alu. "Then he tried to go at Scott again, so I slammed his head into the window a couple of times. I said, 'No, you're not doing that, dude.'"
I asked Alu if he beat up McDermott. He laughed.
"If I beat him up, you wouldn't see him around," said Alu. "He would be in the gutter."
Police arrived, and no arrests were made. Rothstein, said Alu, didn't want to see McDermott arrested. "Scott was having a conversation with him," said Alu. "He said, 'You called me up for Heat tickets, and I got you Heat tickets. I've been nothing but nice and now you want to fight me?' Scott was a total gentleman, and he handled it perfectly. He didn't want him arrested."
There were other incidents with McDermott, said Alu.
"He came in the restroom one time yelling and screaming how the computers in the business were his," said Alu.
He said he and Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler lawyer Christine Kitterman went down to the restaurant to calm him down. Kitterman helped lawyer the deal and had served as McDermott's registered agent beginning in May 2008.
"We went downstairs and showed him the paperwork, how the computers were part of the purchase," said Alu. "He came back another time and wanted the steak knives. Scott said, 'Just give him the steak knives, make him go away.' I said, 'Are you crazy? You're just going to give him the steak knives?' I don't know what the outcome was, but McDermott wasn't entitled to the knives, and I think he got them. Scott was just being a nice guy like he always was."
On the day before the deal was closed, September 11, 2008, guns were drawn in the restaurant. Rothstein had hired a man named Robert Heider to sit in the restaurant as a "spotter" to make sure employees didn't steal from the restaurant. Heider, however, was in some sort of feud with a man named Robert Handler, according to a Fort Lauderdale police report. The report claims Handler stormed into the restaurant with a gun to confront Heider.
At that point, Rothstein bodyguards Bobby Scandiffio and Jose Morales were called to the restaurant. Morales stormed into the restaurant with Scandiffio, who was also armed, following behind. An argument broke out during which Morales allegedly disarmed Handler of his Glock handgun. An FBI agent happened to be eating at the restaurant at the time, and he called police, who arrested only Handler on a firearms charge.
Rothstein, who cooperated with police, told me at the time that Morales entered the restaurant without "authorization" and that Scandiffio simply followed him in to help control the situation. He said Morales was been put on desk duty but also opined that the bodyguard's actions were "heroic."
The public was none the wiser. When Bova Prime officially opened in January of this year, the only newspaper coverage came in the form of glowing restaurant reviews like this one in the Herald:
When our server presented a menu of still and sparkling waters, including a $40 bottle of Bling H20, we figured we were in for a pretentious evening at Bova Prime on Las Olas Boulevard.
For Fort Lauderdale's hip and haute, there's a private champagne room for a mere $1,000 minimum. Powerbrokers cut deals over imported Japanese kobe. And celeb sightings include Entourage star Adrian Grenier and his band The Honey Brothers, who played at the restaurant's grand opening Tuesday.
But happily, there's no snootiness at Bova. If you can spare the bucks, service is stellar, the setting stunning and the cuisine superb.