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Longboat Key Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019 2 months ago

La Norma brings Sicilian spirit to Longboat Key

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The Italian restaurant has settled into its tenure on the island after opening several months ago.
by: Sten Spinella Staff Writer

La Norma is delivering pieces of Italy to Longboat Key: ingredients, staff and the Italian sensibility have been transported from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico.

The business

Proprietors Gianfranco and Alessandra Santagati come from Sicily, and they have extensive backgrounds in the restaurant business. With their two eateries, they serve two clienteles on the barrier islands — Isola Bella on Anna Maria Island near Holmes Beach, and La Norma in the Centre Shops of Longboat Key.

 La Norma is open 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It's closed Sundays. 

The Santagatis’ Longboat restaurant has been open since March, toward the end of peak season, and Gianfranco said it was almost overwhelming to try to nurture a newborn establishment during the rush of the season. Now, the family can recharge as well as embed themselves with the year-round locals.

“We spend about the same amount of time between the two restaurants,” Gianfranco said of he and his wife. “That one is older, it doesn't need us so much. This one is a little baby, it needs more love.”

Gianfranco Santagati poses in front of La Norma with the restaurant menu and its mascot.

With the new restaurant and about 20 employees to take care of, Gianfranco said the opening of La Norma has given him and Alessandra more headaches. Part of that is related to hiring reliable workers. Gianfranco said he sponsors people from Italy to come and work for him “because what I found here, they are not what I expected or what I need from employees.” He wants people “that are willing to work with me, grow with me, make more money.”

The Santagatis are optimistic about La Norma, and they said it’s doing well. Well enough, apparently, to consider opening a third restaurant in the area, although they declined to divulge too many details regarding the venture.

Gianfranco said he noticed a dearth of Italian food (especially with an authentic Sicilian twist) in the area. He also said the longevity of businesses on Longboat and the more stable population base as compared to Holmes Beach helped inspire the family to purchase Ciao! Italia, the restaurant that formerly occupied the space.

“I’ve been eating around, and I was not impressed,” Gianfranco said. “Places here have been running for some 20, 25 years. Hopefully with what we’re doing here, we will be here another 20 years.”

Aside from the food and from wine tasting nights, which happen about once every three or four weeks, the Santagatis are trying to set themselves apart through the “Sicilian spirit.”

“Here we love what we do, and you guys feel it,” Gianfranco said. “You can feel it the moment you walk in, it’s that, ‘Hey, how you doin’? How are you?’ that Sicilian spirit. You feel welcome.”

Santagati spoke to the effort put in to create a comfortable atmosphere for patrons.

The family

When he was a little boy, Gianfranco's father opened a restaurant in Sicily, so family ties run through the business, even to his business partner. Giuseppe Fornieri is married to the sister of Alessandra, Daniela, and he and his wife have invested in La Norma. He called it a 50/50 joint venture between the two families. Even though he is an investment banker in Bahrain, he was attracted to the restaurant.

Daniela and Giuseppe do whatever they can to help the business remotely, although they are in town at the moment. They assist with financials, marketing, social media and other endeavors.

Something about La Norma suggests love, passion and mission. It comes from the blood.

“I’m in the kitchen department, and they are in the numbers,” Gianfranco said.

“I’m just the brawn here,” Giuseppe added. “The brains is Gianfranco and Alessandra.”

When Gianfranco first came to the U.S., he was 22. The year was 1992, and for about a decade he gained experience dishwashing, busing, bartending, waiting and cooking. He then returned to Sicily for 10 years, where he met his wife and they started a family. They’ve lived in Holmes Beach for more than a year and a half.

The food

Ambiance, family and strategy can only propel a restaurant so far. The place is ultimately judged by its food, and Gianfranco is proud of La Norma’s.

“It’s made out of scratch, it’s not fast food,” Gianfranco said. “They’re not frozen meatballs like most of the businesses around us.”

(1) In a series of three photos, in lieu of explaining the quality of La Norma's food, Santagati shows it.

At La Norma, its owners make a point to import food from Italy if the necessary Italian products aren’t available in the U.S. For example, Gianfranco is particular in that the cheese, wine and olive oil have to come from specific regions in Italy.

The kitchen staff is Italian, and they deliver food from a menu crafted to reflect American ideas and desires of Italian cuisine without sacrificing genuine Sicilian feel. For instance, La Norma makes its lasagna with béchamel sauce instead of ricotta.

(2)

Giuseppe said Italian fare has been more or less corrupted in the U.S.

“You know, fettuccine alfredo, and this kind of thing,” Giuseppe said. “And nothing against that. We want to be commercial, so you cannot just revolutionize the market and say you’re not going to offer it anymore. Without sounding arrogant, we want to try and please the palate and educate it.”

(3)

The brothers-in-law understand they can’t stray too far from what Americans know, but when customers do try proper Italian food, they appreciate it.

Gianfranco noted some of the favorite menu items thus far, including lobster ravioli, spicy bucatini and gorgonzola gnocchi. A variety of meatballs, including one type with a cube of mozzarella cheese inside, have also been popular.

Something about La Norma suggests love, passion and mission. It comes from the blood.

“In 1971 my father opened a restaurant in Sicily, so I was growing up and running around, this 5-year-old boy already running the kitchen,” Gianfranco said. “So it’s in my blood.”

Sten Spinella is a Town Hall Reporter for the Longboat Observer. He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Connecticut and his master's degree from the University of Missouri. 

See All Articles by Sten

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