The night we met, I was in my office, chewing on the toothbitten plastic filter of a Tiparillo. Our first conversation went like this:
Brrrrrring. Brrrrrring. Brrrrrring.
Him: "Good evening, Ruggero's Bistro and Martini Bar..."
Me: "Yeah, hi. You open tonight?"
Him: "Yes, dear. We open every night at 5 o'clock."
Me: "Do I need a reservation?"
Him: [slight pause] "What's your name?"
Me: "Torchy. Torchy Blane."
Him: "Torchy, I'm Joseph, the maitre d'. Don't worry about a thing. You come on in and I'll take care of you."
I'm a total sucker for the words don't worry and I'll take care of you. This guy had my number. Right on his caller I.D. I got off the phone and told my spouse: "It's over between us. I've just met the man of my dreams."
But right away, doubts started to creep in. Was Joseph setting me up? Could he break even this tough old heart, promising a table that didn't exist? Or was he luring me in, planning a scam involving watery martinis and spongy pasta? Who was this Joseph? Why was he being so nice to me? What the hell was Ruggero's anyway, and how come I'd never heard of this fly-by-night operation before?
It was time to do some homework. I could be walking into a trap.
A couple of hours of investigative work and a few phone calls later, the pieces were falling into place. Ruggero's had the same name as the old joint on Federal Highway run by Chef John Albanese. But there the connection ended. When his health went bad and he had to close, Albanese more or less donated the name Ruggero's, along with his killer recipe for chicken livers with hot peppers, to the three principals who opened the place two months ago. The new guys, the kind of trio you'd be sorry to run into in a dark alley, had corralled Chef Luis DeGennaro and his wife, Jennifer, from the old Pà DeGennaro's in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Now they had DeGennaro, just recovering from a motorcycle accident, hobbling around the kitchen on crutches, churning out his notorious "Mama's Everyday Sauce" and "panzanella salad" like a madman.
As for the trifecta of heavies who'd invested in this place, what a pretty little bunch of violets they were. One of them, "Bruce" Rossmeyer, was a legend in Lauderdale's biker culture. Along with the ten Florida Harley dealerships he already owned, Rossmeyer was building what he said would be the biggest Hog Heaven in the world, a $50-million, 150-acre biker theme park in Daytona called Destination Daytona. Then there was his partner, Harold "Hackie" Reitman, a pro heavyweight fighter and orthopedic surgeon; Reitman donated every purse he ever won to charity, boxing his last round in 2002 at the age of 52. These two met get this on the board of the Boys and Girls Club of Fort Lauderdale. How they'd hooked up with the third point of the triangle, "Butch" Samp, who owns the Floridian diner and Ernie's Barbecue, I didn't know yet. But I knew that Samp was a daredevil whose motorcycle and boating antics had left him walking with two canes and permanent spinal damage. Other than that, my trail had gone cold. I had ink in my blood and a nose for news. I needed to get down to Ruggero's.
When I pulled up about 7 p.m. that Sunday, under the blinking neon martini glass, the parking lot was already full of bling. The Caddies and Lexuses and Porsches were lined up like expensive dames at a Saks perfume counter. Joseph was at the front desk. He was wearing a good suit, and his silver hair was combed. He took one look at me. I looked back.
"Torchy," he said, shaking my hand. "Good to meet you. Your table's all ready."
Another first. A maitre d' who remembered my name. Shook my hand. And had a table. "Careful," I said to myself, "let's take it slow."
I glanced around. There was a mezzanine piano and martini bar, where somebody was softly playing "Moonlight in Vermont." A few tables of people were scattered around the big dining room, which had been done up in shades of butterscotch and burnt umber. White linen, black napkins in the crystal wineglasses. Muted paintings of abstract girls on the walls. If the effect they were going for was handsome and elegant, circa 1960s Italian-American, they'd succeeded. Every now and then, a blowzy blond in tight pants would drift through the door, and Joseph, who knew everybody, would seat her with one party or another. Weird, though. All the men, not just Joseph, were wearing good suits, including the table of three behind me. I tuned in to their conversation.