Sofia's, a Mediterranean-themed restaurant, is set to open in early August.
Angelo DiFiore is planning for the future in Lakewood Ranch these days, which is nice considering it wasn't long ago he didn't think he had a future.
DiFiore, who will open Sofia's on Main Street at Lakewood Ranch in August, was lying in bed early in 2021, waiting for COVID-19 to end his life.
"I couldn't breathe, talk or lift my phone," said DiFiore, taking a break from the work to get his restaurant's interior ready for the opening.
During his illness, he had visions, such as the walls around him collapsing. He lost 50 pounds and couldn't even stand up.
But after three-and-a-half months of being bedridden, DiFiore pulled through in March 2021 and then had to consider what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He is 58.
"When something like that happens, you appreciate your life more," he said.
The former owner of Angelo's, at 6115 S. Tamiami Trail in Sarasota, and a former manager/chef at several other Sarasota restaurants, such as Chianti, Cafe Gabbiano and CasAntica Ristorante, wasn't sure he wanted to go back into the restaurant business. He was having fun working as a personal chef.
The Lake Club's Jay and Marybeth Traverso are among those who have experienced his talent both in a home and restaurant setting.
"He is a wonderful chef," Marybeth Traverso said. "And his sauce — some call it gravy — is amazing."
The Traversos were providing some free labor to support DiFiore in his effort to finish the build-out of his new restaurant. Sofia's, named after DiFiore's 21-year-old daughter, is occupying the space previously leased by University of South Florida's Culinary Innovation Lab.
DiFiore loved the 4,000-square-foot space and the kitchen equipment already in place. He plans to run some "cooking school" classes out of the restaurant as well as offering a chef's table on certain nights. One room in the restaurant has stoves lining two of the walls, which DiFiore said is perfect for him to prepare a five- or six-course meal while talking to his patrons, who will be seated at their tables.
DiFiore admits he is bubbling over with enthusiasm to get started.
"I'm like a bottle of Champagne," he said. "You shake it, pop the cork — that is me. I am not sleeping at night."
It hasn't been that way for some time. After Angelo's closed in 2017, he questioned whether he could enjoy owning a restaurant again.
"The stress was too high," he said. "I couldn't delegate people to do different jobs. Whenever I wasn't there, everyone wanted to be the owner."
The love of owning a restaurant returned after his bout with COVID-19.
He said he will be very careful this time around, giving his 25 to 30 employees 401(k) and health insurance plans so they will stay. He already has hired all but a couple of positions for the August opening.
As far as the food, DiFiore said his passion will not be compromised. His Mediterranean fare will include fresh Dover Sole flown in from Holland, South African prawns that are so big that three equal a pound and free-range Pennsylvania veal. He will use local organic vegetables.
"I want to sell you what you are looking for," he said.
So would it be considered fine dining?
"No, I wouldn't call it fine dining," he said. "It is a comfortable restaurant. And it's not my restaurant; it's yours. Without you, I have no restaurant. It will be like a big house. Every night I host a party at my house. When people come in, they will get a free prosecco. When they leave, they will get a free shot of limoncello (non-alcoholic dessert). We will give the women a rose. If you are hosting a party, what would you do?"
He will be there to greet his customers.
"Who do you meet now when you go to a restaurant, your server?" he said. "You are a number. Table No. 12. If you have a problem, you might meet a manager. I will meet you, tell you about history. This is me."
The restaurant will be able to host 150 patrons. A membership will be available that will give customers preferred reservations and discounts. He will host wine events where patrons can bring their own wine if they desire and pay a corkage fee.
DiFiore grew up in Latina, Italy, near Rome. He said the town was bordered by a lake to the east and the sea to the west.
"It is why I know so much about fish," he said.
He didn't originally want to work in restaurants and at 13 wanted to be a beautician. His grandfather told him "No way," and he was off to culinary school in Formia from 1980-1984. He stayed at the boarding school five days and nights a week.
During the summers he would work with experienced chefs at the area's hotels to soak up their knowledge. He never was paid.
"If I show you in one year what I learned in 30 years, you are supposed to pay me," DiFiore said with a laugh.
One of the things he has learned is that running a restaurant can be like playing for a football team. He said you can't be a champion restaurateur if you don't experience some failures. He said quarterback Tom Brady has won seven Super Bowls in his 20 seasons, which means he experience hardships in the other 13.
"You can't be a champion if you never lose," he said. "You can't be afraid to make mistakes. I've lost everything before."
DiFiore said that after one failure, he worked for a while at Nonna's Pizza in Bradenton for free, just because he loves cooking. He said he is not a snob when it comes to his title as a chef.
"I don't need to wear the big hat, or the collar," he said.
In 1988, he moved to the U.S. and lived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, working as a waiter, catering and serving as a personal chef. He said he had some barriers to overcome.
"At the first restaurant, the owner said, 'Stand here, and be the host,'" he said. "My English was worse than now, and I would have had trouble being a waiter. So when people came in, I would say, 'Thank you for coming.' And when they left I would say, 'Thank you for leaving.'"
While he enjoys entertaining his patrons with his food, his humor or even a song, DiFiore said he is willing to roll up his sleeves to help his staff.
"If it's real busy, I am the first one to go into the kitchen and tell the dishwasher to take a break," he said. "We are a team, and people appreciate it when you are humble."
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