In Carmelo LaMotta’s earliest memory of his family’s 41-year-old south Fort Myers restaurant, he is 7 and the year is 1979.
“My first memory? The older clientele,” LaMotta said. “Coming from New York and New Jersey I wasn’t used to that. In New York we had all New Yorkers, but here it’s always been kind of like a minestrone, people from the Midwest and New England and New York and Jersey, all coming down for vacations.”
Vacations and a taste of home.
For more than four decades, LaMotta’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria served Italian-American classics in the Iona neighborhood. Way back when his parents ran the place, LaMotta said it was one of just three family-owned Italian restaurants in town.
“It was us, the original Nino’s over by Lee Memorial Hospital and Mona Lisa on College,” LaMotta says.
“That was it.”
A quick search now shows 28 Italian restaurants in the Fort Myers area. LaMotta says that’s never bothered him. He’s always welcomed the competition. Every setback he’s faced, he’s used for growth, be it hurricanes, algae blooms, 9/11, the Gulf oil spill or the Great Recession. He’s seen the roads outside his restaurant widened and repaved more times than he can count. His restaurant has been struck by lightning. It’s flooded. It’s been robbed.
Yet none of it has compared to this pandemic.
“I’ve been through hell at this place — but nothing like this,” LaMotta says. “We tried to stay open as long as we could. Our last day was June 18.”
The restaurant’s final straw: another broken air conditioner and a landlord of four decades who LaMotta says wouldn’t pay for it.
“He wanted me to put up $20,000 for a new unit. I can’t keep employees, you think I have $20,000?” LaMotta says. “I get it, he can’t spend that kind of money with corona out there; who knows if we’d last? So, I get it, but after 41 years for the landlord not to care more, that’s sad.”
It is not, however, the end.
LaMotta’s has secured a new home on the opposite side of the river. The restaurant is scheduled to reopen in the coming months in the former Don Anthony’s Pizza space off Pine Island Road at 303 NE Third Ave., Cape Coral. The new space will have 40 inside seats with 20 more on an outside patio. That’s roughly ⅓ the capacity of the original 150-seat LaMotta’s.
While smaller, LaMotta hopes to make the new space more modern with a younger vibe and a more culinary focus. Think duck wings, keto-friendly dishes, gluten-free pasta options and something he’s calling the Swamp Pizza.
“It’s gator meat, bacon and peppers,” LaMotta said. “I’m going to bring stuff to Cape Coral that other restaurants don’t have. We’re going to enhance the old menu and do something different to bring it up to date for the millennials.”
The cross-town move is bittersweet. LaMotta lavished praise on Cape Coral officials for making his permitting and licensing process so easy. His new restaurant is closer to his house, which is also in northeast Cape Coral. For the first time in ages, he won’t have to cross a bridge to get to work.
But he admits, it will never feel the same; not that anything ever stays the same.
“All the gladiolus flowers up and down Gladiolus Drive, those don’t exist any more,” LaMotta says. “The tomato fields, the strawberry fields — there’s one left and that’s the last one that exists. McGregor was one lane up and down when we started. There was no Bonita, no Estero. There was no Gateway. There wasn’t even a Daniels, none of that. We have seen so much change.”
This latest one, LaMotta hopes, will last another few decades.
“I grew up in that restaurant. I met my wife there, my whole family. We’ve seen customers die and customers be born and bring their kids in,” LaMotta said.
“It’s my tradition, but there comes a time where you have to bite the bullet, when you have to realize it’s no longer worth it, and it was no longer worth it. I had to move on.”