Chef Angelo Elia made a bold move at age 14 when he packed his bags in Salerno, Italy, and came to the U.S determined to make a future for himself in the restaurant business. Many years and four successful restaurants later, his name is synonymous with good Italian cuisine. We had the pleasure of stopping by his flagship location,Casa D'Angelo
in Fort Lauderdale, and chatting with the star chef, who is tall and handsome and has a friendly smile.
New Times: What brought you to the U.S.?
Angelo Elia: My family is in the restaurant business back in Italy, and I grew up by my mother's side making fresh pasta and dishes for the restaurant. But I decided I wanted to come to America to make my own future. So I packed my bags, moved to New York, and with no English started working at a restaurant that belonged to some family friends.
What was your biggest challenge during that time?
not speaking English? [laughs] Well, New York is very challenging. It
is so competitive, and I learned early on that I really had to apply
myself; you couldn't just "get by." I worked hard, learned every aspect
of the business, and was able to move my way up through the ranks.
All the way to the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, in fact. So why leave that position and move to South Florida?
reason as everyone I think, for the quality of life. I came down here
for vacation and then decided to relocate my family. I got a position
with Prezzo's and was soon helping them open several locations.
Why did you decide to open your own restaurant?
I think every chef dreams of opening their own place to be able to be your own boss and have the freedom to create your own dishes. So 14 years ago, my wife, Denise, and I decided it was time. I have to say, it's been tough being a sole owner during this economy. We had not counted on this, but we are getting through it.
Besides your immediate family, is everyone else in Italy?
Yes, and I try to go once a year, usually for a few weeks in the summer. I go back to explore new recipes and implement new techniques with the help and feedback of family and friends over there.
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Do you have any guilty food pleasures?
I love ice cream and chocolate. In fact, at our new restaurant, D'Angelo, we are going to start making homemade gelato that will be available at all my restaurants here in Florida.
Do you cook at home?
No, my wife is an excellent cook. She is Brazilian, and I lover her feijoada. I may cook on weekends if we are having a churrasco, but at home, the kitchen is hers.
What celebrity chef do you most admire?
I would have to say Mario Battali. He is very successful and takes pride in what he does. And he cooks Italian!
You teach classes at Chef Jean Pierre's cooking school. What has that been like?
When I agreed to do it, I thought it was going to be a one-time thing, but it has been very popular, so he's asked me to continue. I teach about two to three times per month. It's time-consuming but very rewarding. I think it's important for the students to see the difference in style between their instructor, who is very academic and does everything by the book, and a chef who is working in a kitchen day to day.
Tomorrow's second half of the interview will talk about Chef Angelo's various locations and some of the challenges ahead. We'll also share one of his signature recipes. So stay tuned!