If you cut Louie Bossi's finger, you just might find marinara running through his veins. The self-taught chef at the eponymous Italian restaurant in downtown Fort Lauderdale has made the kitchen his home since the tender age of 8, when he began helping his mother, a single parent who juggled three jobs to put food on the table.
Bossi grew up in the Astoria section of Queens in the 1970s, moving to New Jersey when he was 10. When he was 11, he was offered his first job, at the local pizzeria.
"I was playing videogames, and the owner wanted me to help him out," Bossi recalls. "I cut pizzas and boxed them. Then I started coming back, and he taught me how to make pizza."
Although the family business was printing, Bossi was hooked on the smells and sounds of the pizzeria.
"I liked the fast pace of the restaurant scene and the pleasure of people eating my food," he says. "When I worked in my first professional kitchen, I fell in love with it. It's sort of like the military, in that it's precise and rough. I like to say that the industry chose me."
There were hurdles in the young chef's way in the form of drugs and alcohol. "Being in the pizza business, that went hand in hand."
Bossi said that before he knew it, he was deep into a destructive cycle, and he decided to make a change and start a new life in Florida in 2000.
It didn't take long, however, before Bossi found himself in the same old patterns — drinking and partying. He decided to break from working in pizzerias and found a job at a full-service restaurant. That's where his life turned around.
"I met my wife, and I got sober," says Bossi of his wife, Toni. "She came into dinner with her mother, who was from Italy. I was making a pizza, and I happened to notice her sitting there. I started to talk to her, and she didn't want nothing to do with me." With some persistence — and time — Bossi managed to persuade his bride-to-be to give him a chance.
"It took about five months of pursuing her," Bossi says. "I did manage to get her number from a friend. Then one day, about six months later, I walked out to my car and she was standing there. She was kinda ready, I guess." Today, Toni works as maitre d' at the restaurant, and they have two sons.
"When I got sober, I found out who I was and how passionate I was about the industry. I was able to start learning." Though Bossi took a job about 16 years ago with the Big Time Restaurant Group — the company behind Rocco's Tacos and City Cellar — his dream was always to have his own restaurant. "I'd be at Bed, Bath, and Beyond with my wife and I'd look at dishes, thinking they would look great in my restaurant."
His dream came true about two and a half years ago. After telling the partners at Big Time for years that they didn't have an Italian restaurant in their stable, Bossi was summoned to a meeting with his bosses.
"I called my wife and said I didn't know what was going on," he remembers. "I thought something was wrong." But instead of getting fired, something even more shocking happened. His bosses said they wanted to help Bossi with his dream by partnering with the chef.
With the backing to open his own restaurant, Bossi knew he had to stand out in the competitive field that is the Fort Lauderdale dining scene.
"It's a big risk," he says. "There's a restaurant every 200 feet on the main strips." Bossi did his due diligence. He got certified in the art of making authentic Neapolitan pizzas. He ate his way around the country to see what chefs in New York and Chicago were doing. "San Francisco blew me away. I went into a bakery that was five generations old. That's what Florida doesn't have. It doesn't have that old-world food culture. We don't have the butcher shop where you get your meat. We have Publix."
Bossi also took inspiration from Eataly, the Italian culinary wonderland by founder Oscar Farinetti that partners Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, and Lidia Bastianich brought to New York City and Chicago. With that inspiration in mind, the chef decided that nearly everything would be made in-house.
"You're not going to go to any other restaurant in South Florida and see salumi drying in the case. Every pasta on the menu is from scratch. All the bread is baked daily. We dry-age our own steaks." The chef/restaurateur also wanted to give diners a more authentic experience than the usual red sauce and chicken parm (although the restaurant serves the dish on Sundays).
Bossi admits these decisions could have backfired.
"There's a great opportunity but also a great risk. People that aren't foodies don't get it. They don't care that you're using a prosciutto that's $18 a pound or that the tomatoes cost $34 a case." Bossi, however, did care. "My philosophy is that it all starts with the ingredients. You buy the best and you call it a day."
Thankfully, Fort Lauderdale's food scene does recognize quality and flavor, with patrons waiting for a table sometimes for hours on a weekend. The journey from pizza maker to restaurateur has been a good one for Bossi.
"If I didn't have bills to pay, I would do this for free," he says. "My wife hates when I say that."
Louie Bossi's Ristorante
1032 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Saturday, and 11:30 a.m. to midnight Sunday. Call 954-356-6699, or visit louiebossi.com.