Musician Taddeo Scalici was strumming his guitar, entertaining the guests Aug. 13 at Sofia's grand opening in Lakewood Ranch, singing some Italian classics.
All the while his eyes followed Sofia's owner Angelo DiFiore, who was going from table to table, greeting the patrons.
It was obvious Scalici was overjoyed his friend had opened the Mediterranean-themed restaurant on Lakewood Main Street.
"He is a little crazy," Scalici said of DiFiore. "But in a good way. He has got a big heart."
Unlike Scalici, who met DiFiore in Italy decades ago, those who came to opening night at Sofia's might only have experienced DiFiore's cooking in recent years in Sarasota-area restaurants.
But they are hooked.
"We have followed him to every restaurant," said Sarasota's Dot Rogel, who greeted DiFiore with a huge hug. "We love him dearly. It's his willingness to please everyone. He is wonderful."
Lakewood Ranch's Alexis Meholic said she couldn't wait for Sofia's to open.
"Oh my god, I can't put it into words," she said. "I am thrilled. I have lived here six years after moving from Washington D.C. and I can say we needed something really good here. Now we've got it."
DiFiore opened with an invitation-only event that featured a buffet-style offering for the first night only. Those who were invited weren't only friends or previous patrons. Some, like Country Club East's Glenn and Barbara Welcher, just happened to be dining next door at Remy's On Main and saw the renovation taking place. Previously the space was the University of South Florida's Sarasota-Manatee Culinary Innovation Laboratory.
The Welchers stopped and knocked on Sofia's door, asking when the restaurant would be open. They received an invitation to opening night.
They couldn't wait.
"This is such a beautiful, upscale place," Barbara Welcher said.
The Lake Club's Marybeth and Jay Traverso helped make everything look beautiful for opening night by donating their labor to transform the culinary innovation laboratory to the restaurant over the past four months. The Traversos simply loved DiFiore's cooking over the years at several restaurants in Sarasota and they became friends with him.
They liked his cooking so much they hired him to cater some private parties at their home. When DiFiore told them he wanted to find a restaurant space in Lakewood Ranch, they decided to help.
Before he opened his restaurant Aug. 13, DiFiore gathered his staff inside for a pep talk. Besides stressing team work and greeting the customers with smiles and pleasantries, DiFiore made sure it was clear that he would never be too busy to handle even the smallest of complaints.
"Come to me," he told his staff. "It's no problem at all. If something isn't right, we can make another one."
After addressing his staff, DiFiore headed outside to address the public on the sidewalk. Marybeth Traverso had decorated the outside front of the restaurant and hung a ribbon along the length of it.
DiFiore grabbed some scissors and walked up to the ribbon, his back turned toward those waiting on the sidewalk for opening night. He was urged to cut the ribbon as he faced the crowd.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm not used to this. I haven't done this before."
He ducked under the ribbon, and thanked everyone for their support. Among the crowd, of course, were those who had followed him along his many stops as a chef.
"This time," he said as he cut the ribbon, "I won't move again."