By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Inside, a row of empty stools, neatly angled toward the arched portal of the desolate bar, comes off like some sort of futile summons. The dining room is bright, clean, forsaken, and cold. The chill is felt in the stiff sternness of the host and the servers; in the composure of the guests, who fill maybe half a dozen tables, sipping wine without speaking, staring into the empty space without expression, seemingly wondering what the hell they're doing amongst this moribund chic.
You would expect this same death-warmed-over demeanor to infect Mediterraneo's sibling, Toscana. Just a few weeks ago, this onetime McKinney Avenue hotspot was serving its guests free wine and booze just to keep tables filled. State regulators refused to renew its expired liquor license because of mounting unpaid liquor taxes, forcing the restaurant to give the stuff away, accelerating a bloodletting that had been flowing for months. Yet somehow it's more alive, warmer. The servers smile. The tables, still less than half-filled, quietly gabble with families and a couple here and there sharing a bottle of wine.
"The pastas and risottos can be ordered in full, half, and quarter orders," chirps our server, handing us the menus after we tell him we're just interested in appetizers. Still, there are signs of wear. The bar is empty. The restaurant's liquor license was reinstated, but the wine list, a three-ring thing with a leather cover, barely has enough pages to justify itself. It's hard to believe this is the same restaurant that was emptying and refilling its tables three or four times on a Tuesday night when it was barely 3 weeks old in 1996, a place where weekend reservations were nearly impossible to get and where the star power of the restaurant's founders charged it with as much charisma as the brilliantly crafted Tuscan cuisine.
But founders Michael Caolo, David Holben, and Franco Bertolasi are long gone, their crop of lauded chefs scattered across Dallas and elsewhere. Bertolasi and Holben jumped ship; Caolo was forced from the helm. Now all that's left of FoodStar Restaurant Group, the firm they formed to spread their culinary vision across the Southwest, are these two listing restaurants, struggling under the weight of internecine bickering, crushing debt, and bitter lawsuits.
By the end of this week, these restaurants will be either sold whole to the highest bidder or locked up, their parts sold for pennies on the dollar. With the pronouncement of a bankruptcy judge and a trustee, one of Dallas' premiere restaurant groups will pass on to the scrap heap.
It seems Michael Caolo can converse through only legal pads. Before he even begins to speak, he lays his briefcase on the table and opens it, revealing a stack of the blank yellow sheets. He pulls two pens from a case pocket and lays a single pad on the table. A bulky man, Caolo leans back, shifts himself snugly into a chair, and waits. The first few questions solicit just one-word answers. But as the questions get more pointed, he leans forward, picks up a pen, and streaks the pad with thick, aggressive lines and fat little circles.
"Two and a half years ago, I had two restaurants, no debt, and was happy as a pig in shit," he says, looking up from his sketches. "Now I've got two restaurants in bankruptcy, a lot of debt, and have not had a good time."
Maybe that's a fitting simile for Caolo, 56, who once said in an interview that his first job was shoveling manure on a dairy farm in central Florida. But his situation doesn't seem a fitting end for what was perhaps his most impassioned project. He draws two large ovals with lines spiking out of them. To those lines he attaches more circles. The large ovals are Mediterraneo and Toscana, the smaller his investors.
Neither restaurant had any debt, he says. Each had a group of 25 limited partners who would refer their families, friends, business associates, and employees to the dining rooms, creating a business model that was virtually self-feeding. The restaurants were disbursing checks to their investors. Add to that all the critical acclaim and dining awards (Mediterraneo captured a Wine Spectator Award for Excellence in 1997, while Toscana grabbed D magazine's Best New Restaurant for 1996), and you have a robust formula for success in one of Dallas' most unforgiving industries.
But Caolo got stars in his eyes, and maybe a little greed in his gut. Convinced he and his partners had a magic touch, he lusted to expand his restaurants across the country. Along with that lust came a need for capital -- lots of it. Eventually his expansion plans transformed FoodStar into the stuff he once flung in central Florida.
"I ain't a restaurateur," Caolo says pointedly. "I am a creator and a builder. The last thing I wanted to do was screw with operating these restaurants." But screw with them he did.