This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Gold Coast magazine.
Chef Angelo Elia has cooking in his blood.
Chef Angelo Elia doesn’t get much sleep these days. He’s lucky if he clocks in two or three hours. On New Year’s Day, after working at his restaurant until 4:30 a.m., he managed three and a half hours of sleep. And that might have been too much for him.
Born outside Salerno, Italy, in 1962, Elia’s story is not unlike other Italian immigrants. There are lows, there are highs, there’s speaking Italian, learning English, poverty, pride, love, regret and, finally, deep reflection. But most of all, there’s food. Lots of it.
A thoughtful man with street-smart intuition and a chameleon-like ability to speak about a potpourri of subjects, Elia has worked his way up from poverty to being one of the most respected chefs in the Southeast. Today he’s quietly sitting in the corner of his latest restaurant, D’Angelo Trattoria in Delray Beach, one of five restaurants he owns, drinking a Lavazza espresso with one Sugar in the Raw packet stirred in.
Life is good, he begins. I work hard, but I love it, he says. It seems Elia knows no life other than working and working harder. The son of restaurant and butcher shop owners, which included a mother who “is a wonderful, wonderful cook,” Elia has worked ever since he was 12 years old. And as he puts it, he grew up with cooking in his blood. He left Italy when he was 14 to visit a cousin in the States. And, to the dismay of his parents, he never left.
He worked his way up from dishwasher to chef of New York’s prestigious La Sistina restaurant. He left New York after being recruited by Dennis Max to open one of the restaurateur’s establishments in South Florida. Finally, in 1996 Elia opened his first restaurant under his own name, Fort Lauderdale’s Casa D’Angelo. A family man who’s fiercely devoted to his two children, Elia also works with his wife, the Brazilian-born Denise, at his Fort Lauderdale restaurants. I couldn’t imagine a better partner, he says.
One could say Elia today is a far cry from that 14-year-old boy who came to America 36 years ago. Just last year, Elia was asked to prepare a white-truffle meal for the famed James Beard House in New York City. Elia and his team brought in 21 pounds of white truffle and infused them into his dinner of risotto, bison filet mignon and foie gras.
“I was told it was one of the best dinners [the organization] ever had,” Elia says proudly.
A man with a simple motto (“I like to treat everyone the way I want to be treated”), Elia dreams of making great dishes each and every day. If he were to prepare his finest meal to serve to others, perhaps a last meal, dinner courses would include fettuccine with fresh white truffle and veal chop with Barolo sauce.
And when asked what he’d want for his last meal, Elia is contemplative. “A really juicy, well-done corned beef sandwich,” he says with a hint of a smile. “I love corned beef sandwiches.”
But then he takes a second to rethink. “No, I’d probably want something different,” he murmurs.
“Homemade fusilli pasta with fresh tomato and mozzarella,” he concludes. “Simplicity. That’s what I like. It’s one of my favorite dishes my mother makes.”
And who would you share this final meal with?
“My family. If it’s my final meal, why wouldn’t I want to be with the people I love?” he asks, smiling, while taking the last sip of his espresso.