Paul “Paulie” Varsalona learned the restaurant business from his father, Rocky, at a very young age. “Marinara on the bottom, tomato on top! That’s an old NY secret to a really good chicken parm,” Paulie remembers his father telling him at around 10 years old.
Sounds simple, right? Well, Rocky has a number of these “secrets” that have made his Italian food stand out for over 50 years. Rocky learned Italian cuisine in Manhattan’s Little Italy section in the early ’70s. Rocky has since built and opened 25 restaurants. Pictured behind Paulie is a montage consisting of articles, photos, and reviews from Rocky’s restaurants dating back to 1972.
In 2008, after a kitchen internship at his father’s restaurant, Paulie was ready to go into the family business. He has since opened three restaurants and expanded on his culinary knowledge after taking extended trips to visit with his family who still live in Formia – a town outside of Napoli. For example, the risotto dish pictured to the left (a delicious blend of creamy Arborio rice, cannellini beans, sausage, and potatoes) pays homage to his Aunt Mimanella “Mima,” whom he learned the recipe from.
Esposito’s opened just three years ago, but has made quite the name for itself quickly becoming one of Tampa’s busiest restaurants. Esposito’s was even named in Creative Loafing’s “25 hard-to-get restaurant tables in Tampa Bay that are always worth the wait.” Esposito’s also earned runner-up out of 40 other restaurants, voted by the public, for best Italian in Tampa Magazine’s “Best Restaurants” issue in 2022.
Rocky, now 75, can be found sitting at the end of the bar still keeping an eye on the food. Paulie’s mother, Elaine, also helps and is beloved by many customers.“I grew up so proud of my father’s restaurants,” Paulie says. “So, going to work for me, in a way, is me showcasing my pride, my childhood, like a kid getting to play show and tell every day of his life.”
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