Angelo Elia is the Italian-born restaurateur and chef behind five establishments around Florida, including the popular Casa D’Angelo — with locations in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton. Elia’s culinary skills have earned him national accolades, including inclusion in Zagat’s America’s Top Restaurants and Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence each of the past 12 years. We caught up with Elia as he prepared an “Italian Christmas” meal at The James Beard House in New York.
How does your cooking style merge Italy and Florida?
Florida cuisine is up-and-coming. I was one of the first people to bring in a lot of items from Italy, like burrata.
Do you work on the line in any of restaurants?
I work on the line every night. I go around to all my restaurants and I love to be involved. I am the sole owner so I love to show dedication to my guys — when they see me work, they want to perform fantastically.
Who are some chefs who have inspired you?
My biggest inspiration was my mother. She was my best mentor – she knows food and we take food very seriously. Italian food is based on simplicity and that’s what I love about it. I like Mario [Batali] — when he was in Greenwich Village as a sous chef, I was a chef at Sistina. He’s a wonderful chef. I also like Scott Conant from Scarpetta. He’s a very good guy.
What did your mother cook for you when you were growing up in Italy?
She made great sauces. She would make fusilli and homemade mozzarella. She also taught me how to make the lasagna I am making tonight.
OK, some random questions. What is the bloodiest kitchen accident that you have witnessed?
Well, one of the bloodiest ones I remember was mine. It involved hot boiling oil from sausages falling on my feet about six years ago. I had to go to the hospital and the doctor said that I had to be home for at least a month — the bones were sticking out. That same night, I went to work on Percocet! [laughs].
Have you ever kicked a customer out of one of your restaurants?
Yes, I once kicked out a customer who really upset me. He was about 10 or 20 minutes late to sit down, and he came up to me and said, “We’re going to have a very bad experience tonight because you made us wait.” I said, “Sir, let me tell you – we work very hard in the kitchen. We try to accommodate everybody and we are polite with everybody. If you feel that way, I think you should eat elsewhere.”
What celebrities visit your restaurants in Florida?
We have a lot of celebrities. All the football players come to our restaurants when they are in town. All the Jets players came last year. I am a Jets fan, unfortunately. Michael J. Fox and Glenn Close have come in to the Fort Lauderdale location. Stephen Spielberg comes in all the time as well. We have a “bother nobody” policy — we don’t go over and ask for an autograph or anything.
What’s on your Christmas Day menu?
First, I do a capon soup with homemade tortellini and it’s excellent. I’ll definitely have a lasagna and usually also do a capretto forno. It’s very famous in my hometown – with rosemary potatoes, it’s unique. We do all kinds of cake, as well.
What is an easy-to-make Christmas dish for our readers?
You can do a beautiful filet mignon in the oven with fresh herbs and a little red wine sauce. Very simple, but it’s perfect. You can also do a nice lasagna or risotto.
How is your lasagna different from most varieties?
I do it with duck eggs and make the sheets very, very thin. I make it with a whole leg of lamb, which is another Christmas tradition.
Where are you going to be this year?
I’ll be in Fort Lauderdale working. I’m not going to work on Christmas Day – we will have a traditional at-home family meal with all the kids in Fort Lauderdale. That whole week before will be crazy, though.
What spirits or beverages do you associate with the holiday?
Good red wine. We brought some fantastic wine here tonight. I have a vineyard in Italy and do my own Vermentino – we made about 1,500 cases this year and have imported some to New York. It’s fantastic.
What are the differences between Christmas in the U.S. and in Italy?
I think Christmas in the States is very beautiful. People feel – the Catholic people really feel and that’s beautiful. I see a lot of people being together here on Christmas, and I deliver a lot of food to whole families. In Italy, it’s a smaller tradition.
I know you are very involved in the community. What are some organizations that you work with?
I am involved in the PACE Center for Girls and have raised more than $500,000. It’s very beautiful. I work with Women In Distress, as well.
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