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Mr. Mangiafico builds his dream house

By SUE WADE

SUN CORRESPONDENT

Carmelo Mangiafico knows there’s a lot of work ahead for his new restaurant.

Unlocking the front porch door at 321 West Retta Esplanade, in Punta Gorda, and nimbly sidestepping a ceiling leak, he joked, “Welcome to the disaster zone. Hopefully you’ll see some changes soon.”

Five months ago, local developer Bruce Laishley announced that he’d bought the 93-year-old home, intending to lease it to Carmelo’s Italian Ristorante. At the time, Mangiafico kept his plans quiet, but he’s been busy in the meanwhile.

What he plans will transform the U.S. 41 southbound end of West Retta Esplanade with a dining and event destination unlike any other in the area.

The historic bungalow must have seen some glittering parties before there was a Punta Gorda Waterfront Hotel or a Gilchrist Bridge between it and the harbor. It’s been vacant since 2004, but it won’t be long before it throws another gala, in a setting grander than before.

After getting the rezoning green light from Punta Gorda’s Planning Board and City Council, work is proceeding — if not apace, at least assiduously — at the new home of Carmelo’s.

“Bruce Laishley was already looking to buy some properties around town, and we kind of found each other while I was looking for property where I could build brand new,” Mangiafico said.

Laishley had driven by the 3,800-squarefoot house every day, seeing it just sitting there empty. He finally called Mangiafico and said he had the perfect idea.

“It could be the next home for Carmelo’s,” said the developer, who’d done his research and believed in the young restaurateur.

“At first,” confessed Mangiafico, “I was skeptical about working out of another old house. I’d been dealing with small size, old plumbing and old electrical at Carmelo’s for years. But I came here with an open mind and fell in love with the house. It has the same charm and quaintness, the same historic feeling, that Carmelo’s has — just on a larger scale.

“My only problem was that there’s no way we could fit a big kitchen in here.”

He was thinking six times bigger than the 300 square feet that he now shares with two other cooks. “We’ve got our moves down,” he laughed, “but it’s tight.”

No problem, said Laishley. He agreed to help build a 2,700-square-foot, compatibly designed extension attached to the west of the house, enclosing an 1,800-square-foot, Carmelo-designed dream kitchen and restrooms.

“The biggest menu change will come from the addition of an openflame grill for steaks, chops and fish, which I’ve really missed,” said the chef-owner.

The makeover won’t be complete, Mangiafico said, until early 2018, when he’ll bring over the entire Carmelo’s staff and add many more to the team.

Sometime next year, you’ll see a rambling, festively lit Punta Gorda compound on West Retta Esplanade, with some seating on its front lawn.

Diners who park in back will stroll from the municipal parking lot through an 8-foot-wide gazebo entrance with a “Carmelo’s” sign; proceed along a covered, brickpaved walkway through luxuriant landscaping; and mount a wide staircase or handicap ramp to a columned grand entrance.

To their right, where a large shed now sits to the east of the house, will be a cupola-topped garden pavilion for private events.

“With Gilchrist Park for wedding photos and the hotel for guests, we’ll be able to do larger weddings, receptions and banquets, which we really can’t do at Carmelo’s now,” Mangiafico said.

Through the grand entrance is a residence lovingly finished with crown molding, carved ceiling rosettes, Corinthian wall pedestals, hardwood floors, a marble-tiled foyer, and a whimsical wooden gargoyle or two. All will be preserved, along with the home’s history, using the same warm earth tones and decorative touches that Carmelo’s customers have come to expect of Mangiafico’s wife, Christine.

Multiple chandeliered dining rooms, seating 100, branch off the foyer. Passing between them, visitors approach a back entrance and porch. There, a 12-seat fullliquor bar will overlook another brick-paved garden with mature trees and landscaping.

Outside, the new Carmelo’s will seat another 150, al fresco and in the pavilion.

“Our structural work, using Bruce’s Florida Premier Contractors (FPC), is coming right along, and all our plans for the kitchen are with the city,” Carmelo reported.

Though he rarely shows excitement, his eyes glistened as he said, “My whole family and my wife’s whole family know how hard I’ve worked to get here, and I am excited about it. Now they’ll get to see all this!”

New Carmelo’s, looking back toward the grand entrance foyer, with dining rooms on either side.

SUN PHOTO BY SUE WADE

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