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Noted chef leaves behind empty kitchen, hearts

As his widow prepares to open the restaurant where her husband died, friends and family ponder the loss of Antonello "Jake" Bertoni.

By LEANORA MINAI
Published November 2, 2003

ST. PETE BEACH - The Bertoni restaurant was days from opening after months of frustrating delays.

Chef and owner Antonello "Jake" Bertoni drove to the gulffront restaurant Sept. 20 to meet with his employees. They planned to mop the wood floors and wipe tables and chairs.

But when workers arrived, they found the kitchen door locked. Worried, they went to the front and saw Bertoni's red Mustang convertible.

They knocked on the kitchen door again and heard someone gasping for air.

"Jake! Jake! Are you okay?" the employees shouted, their fists pounding the door.

Firefighters pried the door open with a crow bar. Bertoni was sprawled face up on the tile floor. His left wrist was cut, and a 6-inch kitchen knife was plunged through his heart.

A month later, friends and family wonder why Bertoni, a father of two young girls and a well-known restaurateur in the Tampa Bay area, would take his life.

They know Bertoni was frustrated. He was tangled in a bureaucratic maze that had stalled construction on the new restaurant, and his $100,000 line of credit was almost drained. Friends said he fretted about his unemployed staff and felt helpless because he hadn't cooked in five months.

The day before he died, Bertoni and his wife discussed driving off the Sunshine Skyway, police say. So many things were going wrong, Mrs. Bertoni told police the day of her husband's death.

"Jake gave up," said Mrs. Bertoni, who added in an interview with the Times that she will open the restaurant. "We all have our limits."

Learning from "the master' in Italy, his father

Bertoni was 3 when his father, Giannino, opened the original Bertoni Ristorante outside Milan. The family lived upstairs.

"My older brother, Franco, and I grew up watching, listening and learning the art of authentic Italian dining from the master, my father," Bertoni wrote in a biography printed on the menu of the former Bertoni restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg.

Bertoni was in culinary school in Italy when his father died of lung cancer. He returned home after graduation to help his brother in the kitchen. But Bertoni was lured away to cook in Toronto. He moved to Florida in the 1980s, cooking at the Courtyard Cafe in St. Petersburg and then at hotels in Atlanta and Ponte Vedra in north Florida.

Food critics noted his perfectionism.

"You cannot go for shortcuts because something will suffer along the way," Bertoni said in an Atlanta review in the late '80s. "You go for the shortcuts, you are dead before you start."

He settled in St. Pete Beach in 1990, becoming a partner in Brunello, where he left his mark with ossobuco, a slowly cooked veal shank.

There, Bertoni met his third wife, Susan, a waitress. He prepared the meal for their wedding reception: roast duck and handrolled potato gnocchi with lobster sauce for 50 people.

A year later, in 1997, he opened his namesake restaurant in St. Petersburg, introducing downtown to veal with pureed tuna sauce.

The kitchen, a brick-lined former ballroom, opened on Jannus Landing, where bands played. A blues fan, Bertoni cooked for the likes of Los Lobos. They dedicated a song to him on stage after a meal.

Lunch and dinner kept him busy 70 hours a week. He began mornings with an espresso splashed with grappa, the alcohol left after pressing grapes. He ended nights at the bar with staff.

He flashed a temper, once ordering a salesman with frozen meatballs out of the kitchen. But he was a father figure to kitchen help, loaning employees money.

"Everyone feared Jake, but everyone loved Jake," employee Tim Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald, 36, recalled an evening when a server brought a wrong dish to a couple. The food bill was forgiven, but the couple demanded to see Bertoni.

He picked up their plates and told them to leave.

"Jake goes to the back," Fitzgerald said. "He's got a baseball bat, and he's smashing the steel table. It was cool. He was standing up for his people."

Bertoni pampered regulars like Robert Sanderson, 50, a vegetarian who ate at Bertoni weekly.

"My mother, she's 83 years old," Sanderson said. "She always wanted her fish well-done. Jake would always make a fabulous salmon for my mother."

Last fall, Bertoni announced he was closing.

"I want to upgrade my restaurant signature," he said. "The place I have now is too big to manage."

He picked the second floor of a building that had long been an eyesore at Eighth Avenue and Gulf Way in Pass-a-Grille. It needed extensive remodeling, but the chance to serve northern Italian food with a view of the gulf was too good to miss.

Bertoni signed a 25-year lease.

Construction issues delay restaurant's opening

The project didn't start on time in January because the St. Pete Beach building director, who reviewed and approved the blueprints, had quit.

The construction permit was revoked, and Bertoni's landlords were forced to resubmit plans to Pinellas County, which was overseeing beach construction projects.

Construction finally began in mid-April. The Bertoni restaurant in St. Petersburg closed the same month, ending his income.

Inspections derailed the project again. It took 21/2 months for the electrical service to pass inspection. Bertoni had to pay $9,000 for a new gas stove when an older one failed inspection because of a missing sticker.

Bertoni kept long hours, overseeing the project through the summer and ignoring his wife's requests to relax.

"He was putting his whole heart and soul into his restaurant," said Sandi Gallagher, 56, who manages condo units beside the restaurant. "And when it got to the kitchen getting set up, he was right there, helping the workers get things situated."

The target to open, July 1, came and went. Bertoni was running out of money.

The landlords - insurance agent Ron Holehouse and Times attorney George Rahdert - paid for the building's structural improvements, valued on the permit at $200,000.

Bertoni split the cost of a designer but covered the touches that give his 41-seat space an upscale feel, his wife said. The wood floor, $10,000. Tile, $12,000. The wood bar, $15,000.

He and his wife added $40,000 to their $60,000 line of credit in June, about the time they started collecting unemployment checks. Nine days before Bertoni died, his wife said, he dipped into his restaurant loan, withdrawing $5,000 for family expenses.

Occupancy approved, Bertonis depressed

It was 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 19, and Bertoni was pacing his new kitchen.

His landlords, their contractor and two St. Pete Beach officials were in the dining room, negotiating Bertoni's certificate of occupancy.

After the hourlong meeting, Bertoni was told a conditional certificate would be issued Monday.

"Everybody was happy, shaking hands, saying, "Good luck with your restaurant,"' contractor Barry Flaherty said.

But as the meeting broke up, Bertoni said the kitchen water wasn't hot enough. Flaherty adjusted the thermostat, but for some reason, Bertoni already had canceled his Tuesday appointment with restaurant inspectors, the last hurdle.

"We were all shocked," Flaherty said.

Sometime that day, Bertoni and his wife talked with Mrs. Bertoni's sister about feeling depressed, according to a police report of Bertoni's death.

Bertoni commented to his wife's sister, Jeanette Hooper, about driving off the Sunshine Skyway, the report said.

A registered nurse, Hooper considered hospitalizing the couple. But Bertoni called her later that day.

Don't worry, he told her. Everything was okay.

Saturday morning, Bertoni woke up in the clothes he wore the day before. His wife persuaded him to shower. They bickered over the construction delays. She hadn't been happy with the designer's choices.

"It was a reference to him standing up to these contractors and having a backbone," St. Pete Beach detective Stephen Cook said.

Bertoni left his St. Pete Beach home at 9:45 a.m. About 15 minutes later, his wife called the restaurant. No answer.

Moments later, employees were calling her. The kitchen door was locked from the inside, they said. Bertoni was gasping for air.

"I'm thinking heart attack," said Mrs. Bertoni, who left for the restaurant.

The medical examiner ruled Bertoni's death a suicide. He cut his wrist twice and stabbed himself twice in the chest. He was dead at the scene.

He didn't leave a note.

"It wasn't that he took the wimpy way out," Mrs. Bertoni said. "It takes a huge person to do what he did."

Contrary to the police report, Mrs. Bertoni said her husband never spoke of suicide.

"I think he snapped," she said. "It was a snap decision."

Widow forges ahead to bring restaurant to fruition

The delays were over, and Mrs. Bertoni sat in the dining room, making a flurry of calls for the restaurant's opening Nov. 17.

She called the Florida Department of State to make arrangements to travel to Italy with her husband's ashes. Some ashes sit in a piece of pottery on top of the wine rack at home.

The phone rang. A business wanted payment for an overdue bill. Mrs. Bertoni begged for time.

"It's coming down to the nitty-gritty with the dollars," she told the caller.

Still, she is determined to succeed, even without Bertoni in the kitchen.

"I'm not afraid to say he's probably the best chef who ever hit Florida," she said.

Richard Madison, who worked with Bertoni and is the cook at Patrick's Bayside Grill in St. Pete Beach, will be her executive chef.

"That was Jake's dream to have a brand new stove, and there it is," Mrs. Bertoni said.

She took a deep breath as she looked around the kitchen, then said: "Oh man. I can't believe he never got to cook on it. I can't believe we got to this point, and he's not going to enjoy it."

- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Leanora Minai can be reached at minai@sptimes.com or 727 893-8406.

[Last modified November 2, 2003, 07:26:04]


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