And just like that, another Sarasota institution bites the dust. After 36 years of continuous operation, Primo Ristorante posted to its Facebook page last Sunday that the restaurant was calling it quits.
“It is a hard and an emotional decision," chef-owner Maurizio Colucci wrote, "but we believe [it] is the right time to drop the curtains like a great Italian opera. Arrivederci…”
Located across from Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, Primo was part of a different era of Sarasota, when there were just a small handful of Italian restaurants to choose from. In fact, Primo boasted the first wood-burning oven in the Sarasota area. So why did it close?
“The hospitality business is changing,” Colucci says, “and there’s a big shortage of help. You cannot have an orchestra without musicians. It makes it very difficult to operate a large restaurant.”
Colucci listed other factors that contributed to the closing: the price of cheese, the price of wood for the oven, the increasing popularity of takeout and delivery, the proliferation of franchise restaurants and a lack of press from local publications. “I think it was a good time to leave when the place was still good,” he says. “We are leaving with our chin up.”
I have blurry memories of eating at Primo as a child—faint images of burning the roof of my mouth on hot cheese and filling up on bread before my entrée arrived. But what sticks out most in my mind when I think of Primo is its famous billboards. St. Louis has the Gateway Arch. San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. Sarasota has the Primo Ristorante billboards, featuring a buxom lady eating a forkful of meatballs.
As a native Sarasotan, I think the Primo billboards are a truer landmark than the divisive Unconditional Surrender kissing statue our tourists flock to. One of the two billboards is still up on U.S. 301, but the iconic one stood for years on the North Trail. When the billboard went up over two decades ago, it caused quite the stir.
“It was crazy,” Colucci says. “People called me and said it was obscene! One time, this lady called me and said, ‘You got to take the billboard down! Every morning I have to pass by with my 8-year-old daughter in the car.’ And I said, ‘Ma’am, are you jealous?’”
When other moralists would call Colucci to complain, he would answer, “Boobs never killed anybody. When you see a billboard for a gun show, do you complain about that?”
Over the years, the Sarasota public grew to accept Primo's imagery—so much so that when Colucci changed one billboard to an Andy Warhol-style image, he received angry calls telling him to return it to the original.
In addition to his experience in the restaurant world, Colucci had a background in marketing and wanted something that would get attention. He asked Italian photographer and Sarasota resident Giovanni Lunardi to find a model with the face of Sophia Loren and a “ciociaria” form.
I asked Colucci what ciociaria means. “It means a woman who comes from the south region of Rome who has big features—big lips, big boobs,” Colucci says. (La Ciociara is also the title of a 1960 Italian film starring Sophia Loren that was released in the United States as Two Women.)
Colucci and Lunardi found their model in Nicole Bociek, a local hairstylist. We found her right under our noses. Her business, Nicole Salon on Palm, is located right across the street and down the block from Sarasota Magazine's offices. Her business is also a bit of old Sarasota that is threatened. It’s located in the 100-year-old Mira Mar building that is facing potential demolition.
Today, unlike her look on the Primo billboard, Bociek is blond. She dyed her hair for the Primo photoshoot. Also, she’s not even Italian.
“I got $200 for the photoshoot,” Bociek says. “I thought it was going to be up until I was 80.” Colucci gave Bociek a voucher to the restaurant, as well, but she says she never ordered the spaghetti and meatballs.
Bociek says people occasionally recognized her over the years, but the billboard wasn’t something she talked about much. I asked her how she felt about being part of a Sarasota landmark and famous (particularly among adolescents) for her décolletage.
“That’s hilarious!" she says. "I had no idea.” She recalls a friend complimenting her cleavage in the picture. “They hiked my boobs up quite a bit," she says. Bociek's two sons, who are now in their 30s, would tell all their classmates that the woman on the billboard was their mother, but their friends would call them liars.
The billboard on 301 will come down by the new year, but I have a proposal to keep Sarasota's heritage intact. The city is looking to replace the logo of the City of Sarasota. Currently, it is the silhouette of Michaelangelo's David. I submit we replace David with the Primo lady. It will be a reference to our city's storied history and also maintain a vague Italian motif. Salute!