Bartenders of the Beach
The story of how Lani Kai bar manager Val Puccia came to our emerald shores reads like something out of a fairy tale, only hers is true. Val – an incredibly friendly and energetic spitfire of a woman – agreed to meet with us this week to participate in our ongoing series designed to introduce our readers to some of the island’s most creative cocktail creators.
“My husband (Lani Kai General Manager Larry Puccia) and I were ‘discovered’ by the owners – Bob Conidaris and his beloved wife, (the late) Grace Conidaris – when they stopped into a restaurant we owned in upstate New York 15 years ago,” Val told us this week, as she graciously agreed to accommodate our deadline and meet us at the Lani Kai on her day off. “At our restaurant – called Larry and Val’s Seafood & Pasta Pub – my husband was the chef and I was the bartender. Both of us would make it a point to visit our customers’ tables, and when I walked up to the Conidaris’ and asked them if they were enjoying themselves Grace said ‘yes, and you’re the people I want to run my restaurant on Fort Myers Beach’.”
As astounding as that sounds, Val’s story gets even better. As it turns out, it was another incredible stroke of fate that got she and Larry into the restaurant business to begin with – this one not so good.
“You know people who say, ‘I lost everything in a fire’?” she told us. “Well, we did – literally. My husband has a Masters Degree in Social Services, and we’d had a fresh seafood business, plus he’s 100% Sicilian and incredible chef, so we decided to buy a restaurant.”
Larry and Val’s was located in the little upstate New York town of Ogdensburg where Val grew up after having been born in Ottawa, Canada.
“It’s right on the St. Lawrence River, where literally you’d see ocean liners go by as close as the Gulf waters are to us now,” she told us.
Val confessed to us that the first time she stepped foot behind a bar was the night she and Larry opened their restaurant.
“It was a little town where everyone knows each other, and people started coming before we even had the lights on,” she said, laughing. “I was a beer-only drinker, and when my first customer asked for an ‘Absolut and Seven’ I just kind of figured it out.”
Larry and Val, with parents who were part of the Greatest Generation, decorated their restaurant in the black and white themed era of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s – when Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Frank Sinatra reigned.
“I think that’s what initially attracted Bob and Grace,” she told us. “They had a summer place not far from Ogdensburg, and a friend of ours that owns a bowling alley recommended our place.”
Intrigued by the Conidaris’ offer, Val and Larry did some checking and decided to give it a go for a test season.
“We came down on January 6, 2002,” she told us. “I’d never been to Fort Myers Beach and kept wondering how much further we’d have to drive! Then we rolled up and Mr. C. was waiting right out front to welcome us.”
When the 3-month trial period ended, the Puccia’s were headed for their vacation home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina when Val realized she already missed the people and the energy of the Lani Kai and Fort Myers Beach.
“I just loved the atmosphere here, how everyone gets along no matter where they’re from, the beach, the Conidaris family, everything,” she said. “So we decided to take Bob and Grace up on their offer.”
Val says she’s never been happier, which is easy to see as that happiness comes out through her big smile and rings in every word she speaks.
“I have my own signature drink, too – it’s called ‘Val’s Miami Blue’,” she told us. “Being a naturalized United States citizen, I wanted to come up with a patriotic drink because I’m proud to be part of this country. So I took the Lani Kai’s signature rum runner-based Miami Vice (1/2 rum runner, ½ pina colada) and added Blue Curacao. It’s red, white and blue and it tastes like one of those old-fashioned rocket popsicles.”
It’s not surprising that Val’s response to the question of where she sees herself in five years is ‘right here’.
“We’ve never even left to visit our place in Myrtle Beach, and that’s where we thought we’d retire,” she said. “This place has everything we need and we love it. I am so blessed that Bob and Grace found us – it goes to show that if you work hard, good things will come to you!”
Keri Hendry Weeg