EXPERIENCE SHOWS AT UNIVERSITY GRILL
Chef Eddie Vozzella has been cooking his whole life
A “chef is, by definition, a person who has experience,” says Eddie Vozzella, executive chef and general manager of the University Grill in Fort Myers. At 62, the chef has been cooking since the age of 10. He attended Boston University and holds degrees in hospitality management and food science, the study of gastronomy on a microscopic level.
His experience is clear. “Cooking is something I’ve done my whole life. I’m fortunate that I’ve always worked for owners. I understand how kitchens run and dining rooms run. I major in high volume with a good product,” the chef says.
Indeed, Vozzella has earned the experiential title “chef” through education, hard work and innovation. A natural entrepreneur, Massachusetts native Vozzella specializes in opening restaurants, five of which he launched in the Boston area. He moved to Fort Myers permanently in 1993 and helped with the opening of Matzaluna on Sanibel, along with Mark Blust, vice president of operations for the Prawnbroker Restaurant Group (prawnbroker.com), which today has a dozen successful restaurants in its portfolio.
Opened in 1997, the University Grill was specifically site selected with a vision of combining cuisines that satisfy the palates of customers in a four ZIP code area of Fort Myers, as well as audiences at the nearby Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall. With this autumn’s opening of Florida SouthWestern State College’s new sports arena just across the street, the grill will be busier and more popular than ever.
Chef Vozzella was the first in the area to introduce a martini menu, preceding a trend that swept the nation several years later. To this day, customers return again and again not only for the grill’s carefully crafted, eclectic menu, but also for its famous martinis. “We pour really good drinks,” the chef proudly proclaims, noting the 17-year and 10-year University Grill careers of his bar manager and two bartenders.
Indeed, the secret to the restaurant’s enduring success can be attributed in part to Vozzella’s mentoring of a dedicated staff that repeatedly garners positive reviews. As Donna B. reported on Yelp, “Our server was great and attentive. ... Everyone from servers to cleaners gave us some kind of acknowledgment.”
Pam M. of Fort Myers reviewed the cuisine, saying, “You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu. My family has been coming here for years.” It is that mélange of offerings that turns customers—mostly annual and seasonal locals—into regulars.
“You don’t work six to seven days a week to lose customers,” Vozzella says. “And if I lose them, I chase them. On my business cards it says if you are not absolutely, positively satisfied, you let me know right now.”
As a Boston-area native, the chef is a master of haddock, of which he serves 600 pounds a week. “When I need a taste of home, I have to order the baked haddock,” Pam M. reports on Yelp. “It is so fresh and generous portions. Cooked perfectly!”
The restaurant’s lunch menu offers a wide selection of healthy, lighter fare, which business professionals find appealing. From salmon and dark grouper to kale, quinoa and
greens, the grill provides an abundance of clean eating options.
University Grill also attracts diners seeking reasonably priced, celebratory experiences. Customers report on social media about exceptional service for groups of 10 or more, saying that—even with short notice—the wait staff and management are solicitous and gracious. On Thanksgiving Day, the chef reports, “We’re the busiest restaurant in town, serving 900 people in five to six hours.”
Highlights of Vozzella’s tenure at the University Grill include pleasing the palates of personalities including Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Sinbad, Pete Rose and the Four Tops. But regardless of fame, the chef’s goal is to serve.
“Being a restaurateur is a lifestyle,” Vozzella says. “It’s something I enjoy. Cooking is a passion. You have to want to please people to be good.” He adds, “It’s been good—good for me.”
It’s been good for the Prawnbroker Restaurant Group, too, the chef says. “We’re all doing really well.”
“You don’t work six to seven days a week to lose customers. And if I lose them, I chase them.” —Chef Eddie Vozzella
CHEF EDDIE VOZZELLA