Although it’s an Italian restaurant on Key Biscayne and not a bar in Boston, La Scala could be described as our version of Cheers. In many ways, the vibe is the same. When you walk in the door, La Scala owner Chandra de Silva greets you with a wide smile, and, looking around, you are likely to see someone you know. And if you don’t know someone when you walk in, chances are you will have made new friends by the time you leave.
Located in the Key Biscayne Shopping Arcade, La Scala is tiny compared to many other Island establishments, seating just 42 people at full capacity. The clientele is mostly local and, outside of the Islander News, Chandra rarely advertises. He doesn’t have to.
“La Scala is a place where locals come for a plate of pasta and a glass of wine,” says Chandra, then quickly adding, “But we welcome visitors, too!”
Chandra ils from Sri Lanka, where his family operates a boutique hotel. His daughter, Evelyn, is a cellist who lives in Belgium and has played at Carnegie Hall. He is truly a man of the world, speaking five languages – English, German, Italian, Spanish, and is native Sinhala.
He left Sri Lanka to attend culinary school in Italy. After working as a waiter for Royal Caribbean cruise line, Chandra landed on our island in 1980 when he took a job at Stefano’s. (For newcomers not in the know, Stefano’s was an Italian restaurant and vibrant nightclub that operated in the 1980’s on the now-vacant entry block on Crandon Boulevard.)
On his first visit to the Key, Chandra decided to impress some friends by climbing a coconut tree in Bill Baggs State Park. He made it to the top but, once there, realized he didn’t know how to get back down. He ended up sliding to the bottom and injuring himself badly enough that he had to make a trip to the emergency room at Mercy Hospital. That story tells loads about Chandra’s approach to life – he’s never afraid to make the climb, even if he’s not sure how to get back down.
While success in the restaurant business didn’t come easy for Chandra, his is a tale of perseverance. After he left Stefano’s, he joined the staff and then became part-owner of the Key’s original La Scala, which was located in the L’Esplanade Mall. But the original La Scala lost its lease when the U.S. Post Office moved in. “It was a rookie mistake,” says Chandra. “I was young and didn’t read the lease ahead of time.”
Chandra’s next move was to open up the Seafood Depot Market and Restaurant in the newly-constructed Arcade. The restaurant earned high ratings and the Miami Herald referred to it as a seafood house “with no frills but much flavor.”
One of Chandra’s favorite memories from that era is opening the Seafood Depot kitchen shortly after Hurricane Andrew passed over the Key in 1992 to feed those who were on the Island in the days after the storm. “We made spaghetti for everyone who came by,” he explains. “No charge. We just wanted to give people a hot meal.”
While most of the Key was rebuilt after Andrew, the Seafood Depot did not fare so well. When it went out of business, Chandra lost his entire investment. For a time, he worked off the Key managing a restaurant on Fisher Island.
In the intervening years, the head chef at the original La Scala – Vito – had reopened the Italian eatery under the same name in the Arcade space that had once belonged to the Seafood Depot. Eventually, Chandra bought La Scala – again. “I took a risk,” he says. “At that time, La Scala was a dead horse. I bought a restaurant with the same name as my first place, in the same location as my second place. It seems crazy, but it worked out.”
Today, La Scala has legions of loyal customers. Gail Kimen raves about it. “I love the size of the space, the tablecloths, the personal service, and the great food including the fresh vegetables – it feels like you’re eating dinner in Italy!”
Chandra always seems to have a smile on his face. When asked the secret to his happiness, he shrugs and says, “It’s just my nature. I look into someone’s eyes, and I talk from the heart.” It’s clear he loves what he does. “Every night is special to me. It’s the Island residents who built up La Scala. When they are happy, I am happy.”
La Scala is open for dinner Monday through Saturday. Reservations available by calling (786) 773-3633.
Chandra and his team, including Chef Jose Moreno, his kitchen staff of Jenniffer Villa and Veronica Suarez, and long-time waiters Alberto Toscani, Antonello Priveti, Daniele Rizzi and Renaldo Romo, will be delighted to see you.