Chef Ed­die Vozzella has been cook­ing his whole life

RSWLiving - - CULINARY - BY KATHY GREY Kathy Grey, a sea­soned edi­tor, jour­nal­ist and copy­writer, con­trib­utes to a num­ber of re­gional pub­li­ca­tions.

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


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