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Performing Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Jun. 10, 2009 8 years ago

A diamond in the rough

by: Stephanie Hannum Managing Editor

You could hear a pin drop in the dining room. At 2 p.m., preparations are beginning in anticipation for a busy dinner crowd. Chef de cuisine Rebecca Costanzo and her team are getting their kitchen work stations ready — thus, the work day is just beginning at Portofino Ristorante and Bar at The Longboat Key Club and Resort.

Just last year, Costanzo took the Key Club chefs by storm when she asked them to take a chance on her.

Costanzo had been a grill cook at the Harbourside Grille for three-and-a-half years, when the club purchased the former Café on the Bay, at the Longboat Key Club Moorings, and planned to turn it into an Italian restaurant.

When the club brought in five or six chefs (including one from Italy) to interview for the top position, Costanzo was right there, helping deliver the tasting plates to the club chefs to sample. After tasting a few of the dishes, she knew she could do even better.

And, after tasting Costanzo’s Italian dishes, Key Club Chefs Bob Weil and Thomas McKinney-Sther were blown away and realized what they had been looking for was right in front of them. Costanzo was hired, and, at only 30 years old, she had her own restaurant.

The head chef position at Portofino seemed destined for Costanzo. Growing up Italian, with the typical large-and-lengthy Italian meals being cooked, Costanzo was always a self-proclaimed “foodie.”

“My mother taught me how to make her famous marinara — we call it ‘gravy’,” Costanzo says. “She showed me exactly how to make it on the stove for eight hours — Italian food has always been my favorite cuisine.”

With cooking in her blood, Costanzo worked her way up from the bottom. She moved to Florida at age 16 and began as a buser, then moved to hostess, cashier and, finally, a prep cook. At the time, it was a means to make a living, but she loved the business. After a move to Virginia, she started to meet and admire “real culinarians” and executive chefs. While working more closely with the chefs, Costanzo was frustrated she couldn’t understand their lingo.

“The chefs were throwing out words I didn’t understand, so I decided to go to culinary school to figure out what they were talking about,” she says. “I had already learned the procedures and techniques throughout my experiences, but there I was able to learn the words. The Culinary Institute of America fine-tuned me to be more well-rounded.”

But the warm weather kept calling the talented chef back to Florida, particularly Sarasota. She applied at the Key Club for the grill cook job — which took five grueling interviews to finally get the job, but she says it was absolutely worth the effort. Now, Costanzo is especially proud to prepare her favorite personal recipe, Portofino’s Mandilli de Saea Bolognese.

Taking direction from her mentor at The Founders Inn, in Virginia, Bob Zappatelli, who recently died, Costanzo has learned to be a respectable chef — no Gordon Ramsay from “Hell’s Kitchen” here. She also has taken his advice to heart: “Take simple ingredients and make them great.”


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