Plenty of restaurants start their life in Key West known as what they “used to be.”
“Have you been to that new place? It’s where (insert bygone restaurant) used to be.”
“Oh, right, and before that, it was (insert even older bygone restaurant).”
But one would have to go back 40 years to recall what La Trattoria, or “La Tratt,” as the locals call it, used to be.
The popular Italian restaurant has been at 524 Duval St. — the corner of Duval Street and Appelrouth Lane — for 40 years.
It’s across Duval Street from Walgreens (which used to be the Strand Theater).
But what many people don’t realize, given the restaurant’s enduring popularity with locals, seasonal residents and annual visitors, is that La Trattoria started as just a means to an end.
It was Virgilio’s, the attached nightclub with its entrance on Appelrouth Lane, that was the star of the show, said the complex’s co-owner and operator, Bill Lay.
“Virgilio Vitale wanted to open a gay nightclub in the space in 1980s, but couldn’t afford a liquor license,” Lay said. “So attorney Michael Halpern advised him to open an attached eatery, which would enable him to get a liquor license more affordably. And that’s how the restaurant actually came about. Virgilio’s mom, Mama Rose, and his brothers Carmelo and Dino came over from Italy to help. Carmelo and Mama Rose did the restaurant and Virgilio did the bar.”
Sadly, Virgilio died of AIDS in the late ’80s, like so many of his friends in Key West and elsewhere, Lay said.
Carmelo Vitale and his wife, Carolyn Sullivan, continued to operate the family restaurant and bar, until 2006, when they quietly made plans to sell it, Lay said.
“I had just opened Prime Steakhouse in 2005, then had moved on to Irish Kevins’,” he said. “Another well-known, local restaurant guy and I were bidding on La Tratt. I couldn’t go above $1.5 million and he outbid me by $100,000. So I thought it was over, and that I’d lost the chance.
“Then Carmelo called me,” he recalled with a smile. “He asked me about my plans for the restaurant if I owned it. I said my intentions were not to get rid of anyone, and to keep the whole staff. Apparently, the other bidder planned to get rid of everyone. He said he’d sell it to me. So I bought it in 2006 with partner Sean McConnell. I’ll never forget how Carmelo left 100 grand on the table for the sake of their workers. So I made a commitment to them to do the same.”
And he has. Several members of the La Tratt staff have been there for more than 20 years.
Lay also made longtime bartender Pip Kean an offer she couldn’t refuse when she didn’t know what her next role might be in the company.
“But I knew,” Lay said. “In January 2020, I made her a 10% owner.”
Attorney Darren Horan eventually replaced McConnell as partner, but Lay remains the operator. In 2010, the restaurant company expanded and opened La Trattoria Oceanside on South Roosevelt Boulevard, where Martha’s Steakhouse “used to be.”
“Martha’s had been vacant for years, and that huge building was just sitting there,” Lay said. “Plus, I always had an ulterior motive. I wanted to start a catering company, but needed more space than I had downtown.”
When the old Martha’s became La Trattoria Oceanside, Catered Affairs of Key West opened in the back of the building and is thriving today.
“I have to give my wife, Amy, all the credit for taking Catered Affairs to the next level.”
The big building on the beach boulevard was also a lifeline in the days following Hurricane Irma in 2017, when Lay and a former colleague, Mike Gilvary, served hot meals to all the National Guardsmen, police, firefighters and emergency workers who were here in the aftermath, when there was no cell service or internet throughout the Keys.
“We became a mess hall, but we were feeding the guys shrimp and lobster instead of the MREs they were eating,” Lay said. “Then one of my guys, Cory, was returning from evacuation with 16 pallets of food. We set up a grocery store-type of thing in our warehouse and let all residents fill one shopping bag with items.
“That’s what this community is all about,” Lay said. “We’re just proud and honored and grateful to celebrate 40 years and trying to make it to 50.”