The Florida Keys – world-renowned for sparkling waters, unparalleled sunsets, endless happy hours, and the ubiquitous fish sandwich. Mahi or snapper, fried or blackened, along with a slice of Key lime pie and an iced cold drink; it’s the quintessential Florida Keys meal. But man cannot live on fish alone; something that husband and wife team Tony and Isis Wright, owner/operators of Italian Food Company (IFC) banked on when they opened their first restaurant in Key Largo in 2021. Now, with three successful restaurants – each with its own distinct character, style and menu – and a fourth in the pipeline for 2024, the Wrights are officially restaurateurs on the rise in one of the country’s most unique destinations.
Italian Food Company Key Largo was the first to open, a charming indoor/outdoor space with authentic Neapolitan wood-burning pizzas and soulful, homestyle Southern Italian cookery that had cars backed up for close to a mile when they first opened. Italian Food Company Islamorada is a two-story trattoria-style eatery with a full bar and a larger, more elevated menu and live entertainment that turns the dining room into a dance floor most weekend evenings. Open since July 2022, a seat here in season is as prized as a record-breaking marlin. The most recent concept – Italian Food Company Express in Tavernier – opened June 2023 and offers Roman-style pizzas, swoon-worthy sandwiches, and grab n’ go delights perfect for folks heading in or out of The Keys.
Like so many business stories of the past few years, this one got its start with the pandemic. The Wrights’ other businesses were dependent on international travel and were sidelined quickly by the global crisis. The entrepreneurial Keys residents and savvy real estate investors soon found themselves wondering “what’s next?” The answer: turn one of their holdings – a former Papa John’s location on Key Largo – into an authentic Italian restaurant; something the food-obsessive couple saw lacking in The Keys. And although the Wrights had no previous restaurant experience, they quickly embraced the challenge. Both grew up in a culture of generous hospitality and the comfort of home-cooked food, with large family gatherings for
holidays and the spirit of shared meals ingrained in their upbringings; Isis from Miami, part of a Cuban-American clan and Tony, the son of an American military veteran and Sicilian mother, an incredible home cook with a repository of authentic recipes who quickly became part of what would become the Italian Food Company team. In fact, every Tuesday she hand rolls meatballs for all of the restaurants; just one example of the dedication to tradition the brand embraces. With a passion for great food, love of their community and its small town feel and the desire to create something special for their neighbors as well as visitors, Italian Food Company was born.
Located at 98070 Overseas Highway, the flagship Key Largo restaurant seats 100 inside and out in a beautiful garden setting. Upon entering, it becomes clear that this is not your typical Italian-American restaurant. From hand-painted murals depicting colorful street scenes and glazed/painted volcanic stone tables so heavy they need to be transported on wheels to ceramics and serving plates to the heartbeat of the restaurant – the central wood-burning oven – everything has been imported from Italy. The menu is simple, accessible and authentic. Here, diners can choose from a well-priced, comprehensive selection of salads and soups, pastas, entrees, and desserts. Arguably the focus here is pizza, Neapolitan-style, made in the wood-burning oven overseen by pizzaiolo Leopoldo Figlioli, who seems as if he was plucked from the streets of Napoli. A casually welcoming place that has struck a chord as the perfect spot for dining with friends and family, Italian Food Company Key Largo captures the “come as you are” ethos of the Florida Keys. The must-try pizzas, meant to be enjoyed fresh from the oven piping hot, are a menu highlight with standouts including Margherita, Diavola, Quattro Formaggi and Tartufo. Not to be missed, Boccas – IFC’s twist on a panini with freshly made pizza dough and stuffed with deliciousness ranging from mozzarella and meatballs to eggplant parm and sliced prosciutto di Parma.
With the Key Largo restaurant firmly established, the Wrights were presented with another opportunity in Islamorada. Home to historic Cheeca Lodge, nationally renowned restaurants such as Michael’s and Mile Marker 88 and luxury lodging, Islamorada, though still definitely embracing the casual character of the Florida Keys, has a more upscale feel. Here, the Wrights took over a well known two story space in the heart of town at 82779 Overseas Highway. Encompassing 4,000 square feet on two levels the restaurant offers seating for 175. Formerly Bentley’s, a once popular seafood restaurant that hadn’t survived the pandemic, the Wrights took the original Key Largo concept of exceptionally crafted authentic cuisine and expanded it from a casual pizzeria to a full scale trattoria and special event space. There are still the perfectly rendered Neapolitan pizzas but here the pies share the limelight with a generous menu rich with choices including a bevy of risottos and pastas; freshly-grilled Mediterranean octopus on a chilled salad of cherry tomatoes, olives, capers and potatoes; a 36 oz. porterhouse with Italian chimichurri; and veal scallopini served with a creamy Parmigiano risotto and roasted cherry tomatoes, to name a few.
Once again, much of what makes the restaurant so great is imported from Italy, from the volcanic stone tables to the exceptional olive oil to the traditional cooking methods that make diners feel like they’re eating at Mama’s table. But beyond that it’s the people the Wrights have enlisted to make their burgeoning culinary empire a reality. On any given night you can witness regulars running up to and embracing managers and servers as one would a friend or family; in fact, many families have made the Italian Food Company part of their family, embracing any or all locations as their own and looking forward to each visit with anticipation and excitement. And excitement is in no short supply on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights when one of the restaurant’s most popular servers, Vincenzo Di Constanzo, turns the dining room into a literal party with dancing, a spirited singalong, conga lines, and outfit changes (he has a storage closet in the back teeming with options). “One night Vincenzo told me he felt like singing to the customers and we told him to go for it,” notes Isis, who still marvels at Vincenzo’s unabashed enthusiasm for showmanship while still seeing to his duties as a server.
“He brought out a karaoke machine, started belting out songs, got people out of their chairs and now we have people who will only come on nights Vincenzo is working. It was a wholly unplanned thing that has become an island institution, and we couldn’t be happier about it,” adds Isis.
When Chad’s Deli, a beloved family-owned diner in Tavernier closed, the heartbroken community approached the Wrights to see if they would consider opening a concept in the sacred space. Italian Food Company Express opened June 2023, serving Roman-style pizzas as well as a full menu and great grab & go options. With plenty of parking, enticing display cases where diners can buy imported olive oil and balsamic, and other items to go as well as prepared food, the restaurant quickly became an anchor for a grateful community.
The industrious team is in the planning stages for a fourth concept in Islamorada that will take the form of a Lido Beach style waterfront restaurant with boat access, that will serve sandwiches on fresh focaccia, grilled fish, and meats. Who knows, they might even add a fish sandwich to the menu – with an Italian twist, of course.
Italian Food Company currently operates three restaurants in the Florida Keys. For more information on hours, reservations, and menus, please visit www.italianfoodcompany.com
Images: Italian Food Company
Brustman Carrino Public Relations