When Prezzo relaunches in Boca Raton later this year, the restaurant will have some serious star power in the kitchen. Mark Militello, a past James Beard Award winner and a famed member of South Florida’s “Mango Gang,” has been hired as executive chef.
“It’s exciting, and it should be interesting,” Militello says. The restaurant, expected to open in November at the site of the shuttered Rappy’s Deli, will be a collaboration between on-and-off restaurant partners Burt Rapoport and Dennis Max and will mark a reunion of Militello and Max. “I opened Cafe Maxx with Dennis when I was fresh out of school.”
That was in the early 1980s, when Max launched Cafe Maxx in Pompano Beach, a forerunner of fine dining in South Florida, with Militello as executive chef. Flash forward more than three decades and Militello, 61, hasn’t lost his passion for cooking or his flair in the kitchen. He has worked as a restaurant consultant over the last decade and spent time at restaurants in South Florida and the Hamptons in New York. For the past two years, he has worked at Josie’s Ristorante in Boynton Beach, mentoring young chef Sebastiano Setticasi, the owner’s son.
“I’m always in the kitchen,” Militello says. “It’s what I do.”
Militello says he has consulted for Rapoport in the past, including on Deck 84 in Delray Beach, and that they regularly talk, with Rapoport sometimes asking about young chefs and potential hires. When Rapoport called this summer and popped the question about helming the kitchen at Prezzo, Militello says, “I got chills.” Militello says “they went back and forth a little bit,” but Rapoport eventually made an offer Militello couldn’t refuse.
“I’m sure it will be challenging,” Militello says about the revived Prezzo. That is because the restaurant will seek that tricky balancing act of reviving the past with nostalgic old dishes (such as apple tart from a wood-burning oven) yet moving forward with creative new ones. Militello says he loves Italian cuisine, with its emphasis on quality ingredients, and he has been busy 40 hours a week developing the menu. He says he will stop working at Josie’s after this weekend to devote himself exclusively to Prezzo.
Militello shot to culinary stardom after taking over a Max restaurant in North Miami Beach in the late 1980s that he renamed “Mark’s Place.” There he used local and tropical ingredients in what became known as “Floribbean” cuisine, and along with Norman Van Aken, Allen Susser, Doug Rodriguez and Robbin Haas they became known as “the Mango Gang.” In 1992, he was honored with a James Beard Award as best regional chef in the South. Militello went on to open Mark’s Las Olas in downtown Fort Lauderdale, which remained a mainstay for more than a decade, along with restaurants in Miami Beach and Boca Raton.
Prezzo opened in Boca Raton in 1989, one of the first restaurants in South Florida with a wood-burning oven. Its kitchen was headed by a young chef named Angelo Elia, who has gone on to become one of South Florida’s top chefs, with a restaurant empire of his own. Prezzo branched to locations in Aventura and Kendall before Rapoport and Max sold it in 1999 to a group with franchising plans that did not pan out. The restaurants eventually closed.
Militello says the projected November opening will give ample time for tasting and testing, and he is not deterred that two Jewish deli restaurants from Rapoport have failed at the site, 5560 N. Military Trail, in the Park Place shops. “I think it’s a great spot,” Militello says. “The new Fresh Market there is doing well. The area around it is developing fast. There’s no reason it can’t succeed.”