241 North Collier Boulevard, Marco
“This little restaurant — 75 seats — popped up for sale and all the numbers were right — we negotiated and I bought the business,” said Chef Guy Verdi, giving a simple explanation for complex events that led to acquiring Verdi’s, the popular and successful Marco Island restaurant that opened for its 10th season in 2008. As Guy explained to us earlier in this story, it was only happenstance that their builder recommended they vacation in Marco Island in the first place. The dream took root way before Guy and Lisa Verdi decided to exchange New Jersey winters for perpetual summer on Marco — when the dream of owning a little restaurant on the Island became uppermost on the couple’s agenda for their future.
“I came from south Jersey. My mom was a chef and ran two restaurants: the Hofbrau that served a lot of Italian food, then a little kitchen called the Ravioli House. I grew up in the family restaurant business in Philly. My grandparents had a luncheonette there that sent out a lot of chefs. My two cousins began restaurant careers there and became big chefs in Philly. The family owned the luncheonette 82 years and sold it not too long ago. We ran out of relatives to run it.
“Then, my mom moved to the Jersey shore in 1970 to Wildwood — a little barrier island in the Atlantic Ocean off Cape May. That’s where I spent my teen years,” Chef Verdi explained, noting he was 12 years old that summer when he started his restaurant career washing dishes in the Crestwood Diner, one block from his home in Wildwood.
“Then I was promoted to Toast Boy. The diner had a big breakfast business and one person made toast — I was that person. I started high school that fall, but the following summer I was promoted to pancakes, and moved up the line until I got another job and became a breakfast cook, actually the egg man. Here I was, 15 or 16, and cooking 700 breakfasts a morning at The Greenhouse Restaurant in Wildwood!”
Then, Chef Verdi related, he got a part-time job at the Holiday Inn Wildwood restaurant owned by a local family, Joe and Lois Sirrocco. They gave him the opportunity to work there because they knew his mom, “I started working the line evenings after school under a hard-nosed French chef. We went through the ‘abuse stage.’ Nothing physical but a lot of yelling. He taught me every station from dessert to butchering skills — there was no portion control in those days — to broiler chef and kitchen expediter.”
“Here at Verdi’s, I’m the expediter. I have sous chef Jack Bowden and Mr. Rigoberto our apprentice — I’m teaching him baking,” Chef Verdi explained.
At one point, his teacher called his chef and complained his night job was interfering with his school job because he was actually working 7 to 8 hours a night, while his working papers limited 16- and 17-year-olds to 3 to 4 hours a night.
“After I left there I met Lisa, who was visiting Wildwood on Senior Week from Philly. So then I asked my aunt and uncle if I could move in with them so I could be closer to Lisa.
“After I moved to Philly, I started working for a company called Rusty Scupper that operated several restaurants around the United States. I worked under Steve Eisenberg, the corporate food and beverage manager, who took me under his wing, I was a prep cook and he taught me a lot of managerial skills in the two years I worked there. I was his gofer and learned a lot from him,” Chef Verdi said, noting he and Lisa were still 19 at that time and only dating.
“My mom called and said she took over a project, a new restaurant called the Hofbrau with a heavy Italian menu. I worked alongside my mom for 5 years — from cook to inventory to setting up beverage systems. Then Lisa and I got married in 1979 while she was still working at Temple University in administration.
“Then Atlantic City opened up. International Resorts was the first hotel with a casino in 1979-80. Lisa got a job at a casino, but before the move to Atlantic City we were commuting. At the time I was putting in applications and a friend — Steve Verbara, who I worked with at Scuppers — contacted me that he was opening a Mexican restaurant and he wanted me to come in with them,” Chef Verdi said, explaining Los Amigos was upscale Mexican, more than just tacos and nachos, and worked there one-and-a-half years.
“Then Playboy opened up and I got a second job working nights in the main kitchen.
“At that time — early ’80s — I got tired of kitchens and started tending bar. The pay wasn’t there working two jobs, and Lisa had major medical problems. She had two heart valves replaced. A friend said ‘come tend bar there’s a spot open in the union — Local 54 Restaurant and Hotel Employees Union — working part time.’ Now I was working three part-time jobs. Atlantic City was open 24 hours and I was helping organize hotels with the union and get everybody (new hotels) signed up on my days off. Meanwhile working Playboy days 10 to 4 and Los Amigo’s 5 p.m. until midnight, then I slept.”
Chef Verdi left Playboy in 1984 to work as a waiter because he wanted to know more about the front of the house. While working in the Sands’ private club for upper-end players called the Sands Plaza Club, he discovered that Verbara, his former co-worker, was also a waiter there. However, Verbara was leaving to become maître’d in the Sands’ ballroom where the shows were held.
Chef Verdi interviewed for the job opening with a gent named Joseph Yarrabini, who asked him about his background and inquired if he worked with a great friend named Marcella. Yarrabini told Chef Verdi that he knew about him because he got Chef Verdi’s job when he left Playboy.
“I got the job — I was there seven years working with Yarrabini — he was head butler and I was his assistant. We dealt with wealthy celebs and started cooking in the suites. Joseph was management and was aware if my cooking ability and decided to take advantage of it. All the suites had kitchens and we’d plan menus for our guests. Tom Bigler, an excellent chef, he went on to become F and B director,” said Chef Verdi, explaining they created dishes to prepare tableside in the super suites. The people who got that kind of service had a minimum $50,000 credit they could bet a day in the casino.
During the Sands’ years, Chef Verdi and Lisa built a home in south Jersey During conversations with their builder, found out his father lived in Marco Island. The builder recommended they check out the Island if they were going on vacation to avoid the winter cold in New Jersey.
“We did (vacation) in the late 1980s through 1989 and rented a condo on the beach from the builder’s dad, Marvin Moskowitz. We started looking a real estate and bought a lot in ’86. Me and Lisa had spent 10 to 11 years working and were tired of the hustle and bustle. If we were thinking of opening a restaurant in New Jersey — we decided why not move to Florida and open a restaurant there instead?
“We always wanted to move to Florida and moved to Marco Island in January 1990. We rented for several years before we built out house in 1992. Lisa worked at the Marriott and I was floating, doing odds and ends jobs. I worked for Sandy (Scheeler-Franchino) and was butlering for a private customer who was the fish purveyor for Café de Marco. He told me he wanted to open up a plant here and asked if I was interested in selling fish for National Fisheries. I had a catching knowledge but I didn’t know about selling. Knowing about a product species was my way of keeping a finger on the restaurant business in Florida and holding on to our dream of opening a little restaurant in Florida.
“I worked for National Fisheries eight years in all — from fish sales to import-export around the world — for my west coast territory from Boca Grande to the Everglades. When I met chefs I could sell the product because I knew what they could use it for because of my chef background.
“In the meantime we were scouting restaurant locations — there were many — that had gone belly up. It was now 1998. Then Chef Kevin Martin (I sold him fish) asked me if I wanted to get back in the kitchen.”
And now you know the rest of the story. ’Nuff said!