The newest name to rise in a storefront at PGA National sounds like it’s making an offer you can’t refuse.
The words Plant Based Mafia hanging from a shingle in the sedate LA Fitness Plaza can’t help but provoke a response.
Has the Mafia gone suburban casual?
Can you pop in to order a hit?
Or is this the final step in Lucky Luciano’s vision (and Michael Corleone’s) of legit businesses covering illegitimate tracks?
Fortunately, it’s none of the above.
While respect and family are vital to the entrepreneurs behind Palm Beach Gardens newest vegan restaurant, Mafia ties are few and far between.
As their website says: “We don’t whack animals, we whack plants.”
But this is not your nuts and berries variant of a vegan restaurant. With menu items like “Don’t Breaka My Balls” and “The Italian Coronary,” there’s no pretense.
Instead, it’s “Vegan Goombah Food” and plenty of it. Big sausage sandwiches smothered in onion, pepper and marinara. Tater tots “ginzo style,” meaning topped by marinara, mozzarella and onions. (As the menu declares: “F’n delicious.”)
Then there’s “The Hit Man,” rigatoni topped with “our sweet-heat marinara, melted mozzarella, our house-made sweet ricotta, and our hand-crafted Impossible Mafia meatballs. FUGEDDABOUDIT”
But there’s no meat in those meatballs and no cheese in that ricotta at Plant Based Mafia. As the name says, it’s all plant-based, brought to you by companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat confident that they’ve replicated the taste of meat, while cutting the environmental costs of procuring it.
Bring in the vegans, say the restaurant’s founders, brothers Danny and Ben Costanzo. But also bring in their non-vegan friends.
“Our food is tastier. Our food is healthier,” Danny says. “We are changing the vegan game.”
‘Treat the body beautiful’
The brothers, both in their late 40s, are intent on turning the vegan dining experience into a fun, lively, family-style Italian dinner.
After all, the Mafia to them isn’t all crime, murder and enduring movie images. It’s about swagger, boldness and beauty, they say, citing the term’s 19th century origins.
“We wanted to turn it on its head: Treat the body beautiful, with respect,” Danny said. “That’s how it started.”
While they grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, with occasional real-life mob sightings among family and friends, their parents moved them out to Long Island to get away from the lure of the neighborhood.
“The closest thing we came to the Mafia,” Danny says, “was cooking.”
So, despite careers that have touched on movie production and financial services, they turned to food.
In 2014, Danny, who weighed 375 pounds, went into the hospital with clogged arteries, an experience he would blog about. He was 41 and stents gave him new life. He began reading about heart disease — and food.
He took an old family marinara recipe and tweaked it to be both sweet and hot. He poured it over rigatoni, topped it with powdered sugar and people loved it.
“We have something with this,” he remembered thinking.
He was out in Los Angeles then, where his production company Costanzo Media co-produced the movie “Austin Found.”
While Austin sought an audience, his meals were a hit. He and his brother made their way to Palm Beach County via the Outer Banks of North Carolina with Ben settling in Wellington and Danny in Palm Beach Gardens.
Formal opening is May 1
They opened a space in 2019 in West Palm’s Old Northwood neighborhood but electrical problems forced them to do all their cooking in a food truck — in the heat of a South Florida summer.
The Costanzos wanted something more sustainable.
They lined up investors and zeroed in on a large restaurant space in Fort Lauderdale but COVID hit. The investments dried up but the idea didn’t die.
Instead, it shrunk. And turned north.
When they heard about the 2,200-square-foot opening in the LA Fitness Center, they liked it because they believe vegans will travel for food and the space offered great access, with the PGA Boulevard turnpike exit across the street and Interstate 95 nearby. It didn’t hurt to be next to a bagel restaurant, which draws customers to a spot buried deep in the LA Fitness Plaza.
They took the space in September and started serving dinners five days a week over the weekend of the Honda Classic golf tournament, March 20.
A grand opening, with expanded hours and a doubling of the menu to include, among other dishes, chicken and waffles, is planned for May 1. Their chef, Jake Herbert, came from Christopher’s Kitchen, the well-regarded organic plant-based restaurant just 2 miles away down PGA Boulevard.
Even as they move into restaurant heavy turf, they express no fear.
“We are, hands down, one of the best Italian restaurants in the country,” Danny declared.
While the restaurant, featuring live music, filled on a recent Saturday night and passers-by stopped to see what was going on, no one roamed the parking lot jotting down license plate numbers. There’s also no word yet on whether the neighboring frozen yogurt shop will change its name to FBI Just Desserts.
© 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.