By SUE WADE
ENGLEWOOD — “No more snow, no more scraping the windshield, no more taxes,” said Sandy Catalano with a throaty chuckle.
Native New Yorkers Sandy and Tom Catalano left all that behind when they sold their Dutchess County restaurant, the 200-seat Catalano’s Pasta Garden, and moved to Punta Gorda in 2015 with daughter Gracie Savoca.
Tom worked at Bianca’s Ristorante in North Fort Myers for a few years, while searching for a new restaurant location.
No more 200-seat establishments for him.
“That’s a bit too fast-paced for me at this point in my life,” he admitted. “I’m pushing 60, so I want to slow down.”
Now Tom’s hitting the perfect stride at the cozier Isabella’s Bistro on Placida Road, former home of Scott and Susie Gordon’s Placida Grill.
“I stumbled upon it, and it was exactly what I’d been looking for,” he said.
Tom grew up in his family’s Roma Deli from 1971 until it was sold, then learned how to make pizza with his brother-in-law. His parents joined him in opening Catalano’s Pasta Garden — true to its name because they made their own pasta.
Catalano’s Pasta Garden reviewers raved on Yelp, “The restaurant has a great family-style atmosphere and the owners are the sweetest people on earth!”
They’re still the same. In fact, some of their New York regulars have tracked them down to become Englewood regulars.
Everything on the Isabella’s menu is what they made in New York, and Tom’s parents, who now live in Englewood, still come in to help him in the kitchen. Sandy brings the same warmth to hosting at Isabella’s that she did to her former nursing career.
“But we had so many issues a year ago, when we first opened,” Sandy said. “People told us, ‘You’re going to do great, but you’re also going to have one big problem.’”
After whittling down 60 résumés to 12 interviews and then 6 hires, they soon experienced the big problem people were talking about. Southwest Florida’s number one restaurant headache is finding and retaining reliable staff. Only one of the Catalanos’ first interviewees is still with them.
“In New York we had staff with us for years. It was just unbelievable to me,” said Sandy. “They didn’t show up, they had issues, they called out sick. At 4 o’clock some days, we just had to put on our faces and do it ourselves. I don’t know how we did it, to be honest.”
Beyond word of mouth and a big Isabella’s Bistro sign out front, they didn’t dare advertise at first, so you might not have heard of them.
Serving a crowd was sometimes a challenge, because their mostly made-to-order menu is extensive — with classic starters like fried calamari and antipasto; six different pastas; chicken, veal, seafood, chops and steaks; baked entrees including lasagna and manicotti; and exquisite confections, like Limoncello Mascarpone Cake, from 73-year-old Bindi Italian desserts.
“But we love what we do on our six-burner stove, and the people here have been wonderful. They love the food.”
They love it so much that, at less than a year old, Isabella’s Bistro took the 2018 Englewood Sun Readers’ Choice Award for Best New Restaurant.
Isabella’s Bistro ($$-$$$), 6800 Placida Road (Fiddlers Green), Englewood, is open Monday to Thursday 4 to 8:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 to 9 p.m. Beer and wine only. For more information, go to Facebook @IsabellasBistroEnglewood or call 941-698-9880. Reservations are recommended.