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Louie Bossi: From heroin addict to kitchen kingpin

Louie Bossi tells of the time he overdosed and almost died on a New York subway car after snorting a $10 bag of heroin known as Amtrak. His sister recalls how Louie was stabbed in the back with scissors by a drugged-up girlfriend in Miami and how it was a good thing he landed in the hospital. “She was shot dead doing a drug deal the next day,” Rosemary Bossi Daniel says. His wife tells how Louie knocked on her door in 2009, nine months into a sobriety that stuck, begging to see his two young sons. She refused.

“I said, ‘You have to put a year under your belt,’ ” Toni Bossi recalls. “I needed to know that he was serious. There’s been some tough love.”

Through it all, the kitchen has been Louie Bossi’s salvation. After his father left his family when he was 7, Louie would cook for his three older siblings while his mother worked three jobs. When he was older, he’d make meals for friends. Soon after meeting Toni at a 12-step meeting in 1998, he wooed her by making rigatoni a la vodka. “To die for,” Toni says.

He bounced around pizzerias and restaurants his whole life. Through the haze of drugs, booze and pills, he felt best when someone complimented his food. “A different kind of high,” Louie Bossi says.

“My friends would say, ‘Why don’t you leave him? He’s a loser,’ ” Toni says. “But I saw something in him. When he wasn’t using, he was a gentle, caring and sensitive guy. He’s a workhorse. He’s got talent. And he’s got so much passion. I always said he could be the next Mario Batali.”

“Now, his name is up in lights all over the place,” restaurateur Todd Herbst says. “And he deserves it. He’s earned it. Louie has worked his ass off to get where he is.”

Bossi, who turns 50 this year, is finally in a good place. He has a loving wife and two boys, Nicholas, 16 and Antonio, 8. He has been sober for nine years. He runs two of South Florida’s hottest restaurants in partnership with Herbst’s Big Time Restaurant Group. The first Louie Bossi’s Ristorante opened in 2015 on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. The second opened last month on East Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton. A third is planned for downtown Delray Beach next year. The restaurants are huge successes, serving soulful Italian food with housemade breads and pastas and meats cured and dry-aged on the premises. Toni, a veteran restaurant manager, works the front of the house at the Boca Raton location.

“I never finished high school, never went to culinary school,” Bossi says. “The only diploma I have is one from a pizzamaking course. But I’m proof that it’s never too late to turn things around. I took that Bossi name, which was tarnished and filled me with shame and resentment, and am working to make it something great.”

His mother, Rosemary Bossi, who lives in Delray Beach, says, “I’m so amazed how far he’s come.”

His sister, also named Rosemary says, “He has the tools now to succeed. He didn’t want to turn out like his dad. He’s a big guy — everybody used to call him ‘Large Lou’ — and he does things big. But he doesn’t act like a big shot, even with all this success.”

On Saturday night, June 3, Bossi will stage the inaugural Taste of Recovery in Delray Beach. Nearly 20 restaurants are scheduled to take part in the culinary event. (I’ll be serving as an unpaid judge for the Best Bite competition.) The event will raise money for Crossroads, a recovery clubhouse in Delray Beach where drug and alcohol addicts gather daily for 12-step meetings. Bossi first went to Crossroads in 1998, a couple of years after he moved to South Florida.

“I walk up and down Atlantic Avenue in Delray, and it seems half the wait staff is in recovery,” says Tony Allerton, 88, the executive director of Crossroads and a self-described alcoholic who has been sober 35 years. “I see a lot of those same faces at Crossroads.”

Bossi says addiction strikes all walks of life, but restaurant and kitchen workers are particularly hard hit. Long hours, hot stoves, frayed nerves, late nights and ready access to cash, alcohol and drugs all play a role. “The hospitality industry has a disproportionate problem,” says Herbst, whose group also runs Rocco’s Tacos, City Oyster and Big City Tavern.

Bossi’s sister, who works in the recovery field, says, “You’ve got booze all around, and either the cook has drugs, the dishwasher has drugs or the customers have drugs.”

Anthony Bourdain, the chef turned TV host, detailed his heroin addiction in his book “Kitchen Confidential.” Daniel Serfer, a Miami chef who owns Blue Collar and Mignonette restaurants, recently shared his substance-abuse issues with the Miami Herald. “We need more open dialogue about how drugs and alcohol are a problem in our industry,” Serfer told the Herald. “People need to know you can have a great life and be clean.”

Bossi wants to do his part. After past scrapes with the law, including a DUI, he speaks to 12-step groups in jail. He mentors and sponsors recovering addicts. And he gives jobs and second chances to those who need work.

Toni says Bossi has been a beneficiary of second chances. During the rocky first decade of their marriage, he says he relapsed seven times. Toni recalls him once flinging a frying pan through a restaurant dining room where they both worked. She says he would sometimes miss shifts at City Oyster in Delray Beach, the Big Time restaurant where he started in 2000, but his managers would hire him back.

“I’m thrilled that we gave him however many chances we gave him,” Herbst says. “He’s a personable, affable down-to-earth guy. And his food is outstanding.”

Bossi says City Oyster was his first job in a proper kitchen. He loved the hierarchy and the structure. He was the morning line cook, making soups and other dishes for later in the day. He absorbed everything he could. He would stay late to learn about making veal and beef stocks from scratch.

Bossi was born in Queens, N.Y. His father, Louis Bossi Sr., worked in the printing business and eventually chose drinking over family life.. “He smoked no-filter Camels and drank Rheingold in cans,” Bossi says. After his father left, the family moved to northern New Jersey. With his mother always working, he says he had an unstructured adolescence, and was often out on the streets until 1 a.m. He says he started drinking at 17, and became hooked on heroin at 19.

“I had abandonment issues. I had self-esteem issues. I had resentment issues,” Bossi says.

His older sister Lorraine, who worked in a Fort Lauderdale nightclub, died at 28 in a motorcycle wreck in 1992 on Cypress Creek Road. That sent the family into a tailspin.

Bossi says he spent two years homeless after his sister’s death, couch-surfing with friends and spending some nights in a cardboard box on the streets of Newark, N.J. He says he stole cartons of cigarettes and sold them to bodegas to fuel his drug fix. The overdose came after he scored a bag of heroin in Harlem. A stranger on the subway called for help in midtown Manhattan, and paramedics revived Bossi with a shot of naloxone.

Bossi moved to South Florida a few years later and made his first attempt at recovery. At Crossroads, he met Toni, a 24-year-old party girl from Wellington who realized she had a problem. “You’re not supposed to get involved with anyone else in recovery in the first year,” Toni says. “We broke every rule.” They married in 2001.

Toni’s sobriety held, but Bossi’s did not. Nearly a decade ago, with a newborn son and 7-year-old at home, Louie bolted. He was drinking and popping opioid pills. “The pattern was repeating,” Toni says. “Everything he hated his father for, he was becoming.”

Bossi didn’t want to go down that road. He went to a therapist. He went to daily recovery meetings. And he threw himself into his work at Big City Tavern in Fort Lauderdale, where he was named executive chef in 2010.

Toni took him back. “He became a man,” she says.

In 2011, Bossi got a phone call from his father. His dad was in a North Carolina hospital, dying after decades of alcohol abuse. Louie and Toni drove up. Louis Joseph Bossi Jr. told Louis Joseph Bossi Sr., that he forgave him, that he understood his father did the best he could, and that he would try to do better with his sons.

A few hours later, as they drove back to Florida, Bossi got word from his sister that his father had died. He pulled over, and broke down for 20 minutes. “In all our years together, I’d never seen Louie cry, but these guttural noises were coming out of him,” Toni recalls. “And then, he just pulled himself together and said, ‘I’m good.’ ”

The deal with Big Time to launch his own Italian restaurant came in 2014. Herbst says there was never any doubt about the name: “Louie Bossi’s — it’s just a great name for an Italian restaurant.”

Addicts say recovery is a lifelong struggle, but Herbst says, “I trust Louie implicitly. He has been honest and upfront with us. All that history, it’s not even background noise. The volume is off.”

Toni says working with her husband makes their partnership and sobriety even stronger. “He knows I’ve got his back,” she says.

Bossi takes his kids to school every day and plays ice hockey with his youngest son. “I’m making up for lost time, doing the things I never got to do as a kid with my dad,” he says. On a recent day at the Boca Raton restaurant, Bossi’s left arm was in a cast. He fractured his elbow in a spill on the ice in May.

Toni says at the emergency room, a doctor offered some painkillers. She shot Bossi a look, but her husband was in pain, and she says he took a Percocet. The next day, when they went to a specialist, the doctor wrote him a prescription for the opioid. When they picked it up at the pharmacy, she was shocked to see a vial of 60. She says Bossi, still in severe pain, took two pills that night.

The next morning, he marched over to the medicine cabinet and said, “I don’t need this s---.” Together, they flushed the pills down the toilet.

Taste of Recovery will be held 6-10 p.m. Saturday, June 3, at Old School Square Pavilion, 51 N. Swinton Ave., in Delray Beach. Tickets cost $40 and are available at TasteOfRecovery.com, or at the gate. The event is tented, alcohol-free, open to all ages and will take place rain or shine. About 20 Palm Beach County restaurants are expected to participate, and Sarge the Comedian will provide entertainment. All proceeds will benefit Crossroads, a recovery clubhouse in Delray Beach where more than 160 meetings of 12-step organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous are held weekly. For more information on Crossroads, 1700 Lake Ida Road, call 561-278-8004 or go to CrossRoadsClub.com,

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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