A polished act
By EILEEN SCHULTE
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 29, 2001
"Anything you want to hear?" he asked.
"Coming to America!" a woman yelled out from a table under a Cinzano umbrella.
"I knew someone would ask to hear that," sighed Palermo, otherwise known as "Florida's Neil Diamond."
It was 10 p.m. on a foggy Thursday during the second week of December -- opening week for Palermo's, 32888 U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor. The woman and a companion were seated near eight other people who had discovered the restaurant in a poorly lighted strip center behind Chick-fil-A off U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor.
Palermo, 57, chose not to launch into the Neil Diamond classic just yet. A grin came over his face, as if he had a secret. He pulled out a wig with two long braids attached to a bandana, and put it on over his brown, slicked-back hair.
He began to sing like Willie Nelson.
"To all the girls I've loved before," he crooned in an authentic twang. "Who traveled in and out my door . . ."
The people by the bar laughed. After the song, he gave them what they came for: Hello Again, a Diamond favorite.
At the end they gave him an enthusiastic round of applause.
"What else would you like to hear?" he asks them.
"Sweet Caroline!" another woman yelled out.
"You know, out of all the Neil Diamond songs, that's the one I've never learned," he teased.
Then he sang it.
And so it goes almost nightly at Palermo's, Bobby Palermo's new Italian restaurant in Palm Harbor where he serves bruschetta, antipasto, three-pasta platters and other Old World Italian cuisine both tableside and buffet style.
The restaurant, which seats up to 170, is being discovered by more people after a slow start, according to bartender Nick Ajazi.
"It's picked up week to week," he said.
Palermo is something of a local legend among Pinellas County lounge singers. He spent years playing the Ramada Inn in Countryside, where management invented his nickname and he developed a following of loyal fans. After a few false starts with other restaurants, he has landed in the space at the Palm Lake Shopping Center.
But life was different about a decade ago, when Palermo could be found wowing seniors at the Dunedin Lanes bowling alley.
Jan Tremmel, the general manager there, can't forget him.
"When he played we had to close the restaurant early and make it into a dance floor," she said. "We put candles on the tables. We had to have extra cocktail waitresses when he worked. He was very much Neil Diamond."
More people than the fire marshal allowed came to the bowling alley when Palermo entertained, said owner Helen Smith, overwhelming the staff and stressing the facility's resources.
"He's a very fun entertainer, nice and clean," Smith said. "We really enjoyed him."
But she could never have him play there again because his appearances drew so many customers "it wasn't that profitable for us with the additional staff and overhead eating up the profits. We're just a neighborhood bar."
When he works, Palermo loves to dress up in sequins, just like his idol. But on that Thursday in December, he came to work in a white shirt and plain slacks. When he heard a St. Petersburg Times photographer was there to take his photo, Palermo begged for a moment to go in the back and change into something more flashy, more Diamondesque.
He disappeared. In the time it takes to sing Love on the Rocks, he was back, wearing a lavender shirt adorned with glitter and a sash around his neck.
Ahh. Now he was in character.
He sang more Neil Diamond songs. A middleaged couple got up to dance, kissing each other lightly and laughing as they held each other and circled slowly.
After playing Las Vegas and points throughout the United States, why open his own restaurant now?
"I'm tired after nine years on the road," Palermo said between sets. "I missed my family."
He said Old World cuisine has long been a passion, "like singing Love on the Rocks."
"This is the biggest thrill of my career," he said of his restaurant.
He said he's played enough restaurants to know how to run the business right. He was treated bad in some of them.
"They hire you to entertain people," he said. "You pack 'em in and they have the TV running with a hockey game saying the score."
But some of the establishments didn't just treat him bad, they neglected their customers. Palermo was disgusted.
"One place I worked a couple came in two or three times a week," he said. "They never even got a hello."
At his place, he wants to talk to his customers, get to know them so well "I know the names of their dogs."
"I don't want to rip anyone off," he said. "I may have forgotten to do a birthday request, but I don't think I've ever ripped anyone off."
The business is very much a family affair. Palermo's daughter, Alicia, 17, is the host. Cindy, his wife, is the general manager, the one who "put it all together," he said.
"For years and years, this was our dream," he said.
So far, his patrons are delighted.
"The food's excellent," said Jesse Giles, who has known Palermo for a decade. "I've been telling people, if you want a good place to eat, go to Palermo's."
Palermo sang. He stopped and asked his audience, "should I kick it up?"
Yes, they said. Another couple got up to dance.
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