He’d just closed Prime Serious Steak’s Westfield Sarasota Square mall location.

Almost immediately, local restaurateur David Valentino announced signing the lease for a third, 4,500-square-foot Bocca Lupo Coal Fired Pizza in the new West Villages Marketplace near CoolToday Park.

“My life’s been quite busy lately,” quipped Valentino, also co-owner of Prime and Donato’s Italian Restaurant in Port Charlotte.

About Prime’s closing, he explained, “We understand how the whole retail business model is being challenged. Nevertheless, there was an expectation on everybody’s part that Westfield Sarasota Square would undergo substantial redevelopment, which had just begun when Prime went in.”

The whole script for malls, he said, has become building around restaurants, rather than retail, to attract guests. The Westfield Group is well on the way to redeveloping its property to the north — Westfield Siesta Key — which includes more new restaurant space in the front and a hip new Lucky’s Market.

“But two and a half years later, there was still no real Sarasota Square redevelopment plan,” said Valentino. “So it wasn’t best for our brand to continue sitting there while they suffered retailer losses. We understand it’s a complex relationship, but we just couldn’t wait any longer and decided to seek a location elsewhere.”

When one door closes, another one opens.

The West Villages store will be the second Bocca Lupo in North Port, beyond the original Port Charlotte location.

Valentino said, “We’d identified that area quite a while ago, as it was experiencing explosive growth. West Villages Marketplace is the perfect location for a casual family restaurant like Bocca Lupo. It’s got CoolToday Park up the street and the State College of Florida, with 3,000 students, right across the street.”

The 105,000-square-foot, Publix-anchored neighborhood shopping center is the first commercial development for the West Villages, targeted for a November 2019 opening at the southwest corner of U.S. 41 and West Villages Parkway.

Bocca Lupo will open at the same time, joining other eateries that have signed leases there — so far, China 1, a Thai/Japanese restaurant and Dunkin’.

“We’re excited about designing and building a first-generation space,” Valentino said. “One fun difference, because we have a clean palette there, is that we can situate our coal-fired oven — our “Wolf,” as we call it — right in the center of the dining room.

“It’s the largest production oven manufactured in the United States, all the way from Bellingham, Washington. You never want it to fully cool. So, at the end of the night, we ‘bank’ it and contain it as a living fire.”

Ever since Valentino’s brother, co-owner Dennis, first lit the Port Charlotte Wolf in 2010, it has never gone out.

“That same fire was transported to the North Port location when we opened there. And we’ll have a passing of the torch when the West Villages location opens.

“The North Port Fire Department even offered to escort us as we carry it from North Port to West Villages,” Valentino said gleefully.

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