The Solorzanos La Famiglia
From brick-oven pizzas to sonorous family banter, a dinner with Italian cuisine restaurateurs the Solorzano family is everything I imagined it to be.
The moment I walk through the wrought iron gate into Franca and Carlos Solorzano's courtyard I am no longer in a deed-restricted Gulf Gate neighborhood. Instead, I am in an Italian garden complete with fountains, lush greenery, and pergolas, a continuous oasis that serves as the frame for the Solorzano home.
Matriarch and second-generation Italian beauty Franca answers the door. As I step in, a quick scan reveals family treasures and historical photos nestled among rich, warm-toned decor. Solorzano patrons are familiar with this scene.
"If you go to any of the pizzerias or the restaurant, you see family on the walls," says Franca. "That's what we are all about. We aren't fake. What you see is what you get."
Fifteen-month-old grandson Filippo (named after Franca's father) sits patiently in his high chair watching "Nonna" whirl around the kitchen.
"I'm doing a little baby sitting... and preparing the pasta," says Franca.
Franca's husband of 38 years, Carlos, makes his entrance, acknowledging the cool break from stoking the fire in their hand-built pizza oven. As we wait for the rest of the family to arrive, I follow Carlos back to the oven. On the patio is a large farm table which has no doubt played host to many important conversations.
"We talk about business, we talk about our families, we get into arguments, we bump heads–and later we just let go and are all fine," says Franca, describing their weekly family get-togethers. "You know, we are all the same."
Beyond a screen door, the oasis continues with an herb garden and hanging orchids.
The heat from the oven smacks my face.
"Stick your hand in, just for second," Carlos says. He isn't joking. I comply. "See? It's perfect heat."
High heat and low humidity are key to pizza-making success in a brick oven, and this fire has been burning for about four hours. We kneel down to observe the roof of the oven. It's white hot.
"Write this down: 'Carlos Solorzano is happiest making pizzas with his family,'" he says.
Everything the Solorzanos do revolves around family.
They moved to Sarasota from New Jersey 13 years ago. A taste of paradise paired with a desire to provide Sarasota with authentic pizza made it easy to convince the family to relocate.
Their sons arrive. Philip and Carlos Jr. are the third generation of family pizza makers. Franca's father opened his first pizza joint in 1965. Franca met Carlos, who is half Honduran, half Palestinian (but speaks fluent Italian), while he was working in her family's pizzeria.
The Solorzanos opened Solorzano's Pizza Café on Siesta Drive in 2004, but have since moved and branched out. Franca and Carlos own Solorzano's Ristorante on Gateway Drive; Philip owns Solorzano's Pizzeria Siesta Key and Late Night in Gulf Gate; and Carlos Jr. owns and operates Solorzano Bros. Pizzeria, off Webber Street. The busy family keeps a dinner date at least once a week, usually on Monday.
Philip goes straight to the pizza oven to stick his hand in.
"Perfect temp," he tells his dad. This family's symbiosis around the pizza oven becomes apparent.
I meet Jolesa, Philip's wife, now holding son Filippo over her baby bump, and Carlos Jr. and his girlfriend, Juliana Burns.
It's time to make pizza.
Philip talks to me about the quality of ingredients as he spreads out the dough and tops it with fresh prosciutto, pepperoni, and cheese. The pizza is fed to the oven. A few quick rotations, and the edible work of art is out and on the table.
Carlos Jr. goes vegetarian with his toppings, choosing roasted red pepper, chopped garlic, and chunks of fresh mozzarella and fresh rosemary. He says he enjoys including local ingredients when he can.
After everyone has a slice or two, Carlos grabs Franca's dessert to show me: hazelnut liqueur–soaked starfruit. The fruit came from Carlos Jr.'s tree.
We shift to the patio table as Franca produces a bowl of pasta with meat sauce, divvying it among everyone's plates.
"When you come to the restaurant, I treat you like I would if you came to my home," says Franca. "Not just as a customer but as part of our family."
I notice Carlos beaming ear to ear as he observes his family once again around the table.
He shouts: "This is my family. The Solorzano Family. Welcome!"
Franca walks me out.
"What door did you come in?" she asks. "You must exit from the same door you came in 'cause it's bad luck if you don't."
I have a feeling I will be back.
► Solorzano's Italian Restaurant: 6516 Superior Ave, Sarasota; 941-906-9444
► Solorzano Bros.: 3604 Webber St, Sarasota; 941-926-4276; solorzanobros.com
► Solorzano's Pizzerias: 215 Avenida Madera, Siesta Key; 941-349-Bros; sbpsiestakey.com
► Solorzano's Late Night Pizzeria: 6670 Superior Ave, Sarasota; 941-349-Bros; sbpsiestakey.com