Not long ago, Paul Castronovo checked his phone and worried. One of his son AJ’s University of Florida fraternity brothers was trying to video call. Was everything OK? Was the kid in trouble? Castronovo answered quickly – and quickly stopped worrying.
The frat buddy was with his family in a familiar spot in Rome, Ristorante Pietro Valentini. For years, Castronovo’s been going to and recommending the mom-and-pop restaurant between the River Tiber and the Pantheon. He first found out about it years ago when he asked a Roman hotel concierge for some restaurant recommendations and got the usual tourist-trail places. Then he asked where the concierge would take his own family on a Sunday. The man’s eyes lit up, and Castronovo got the recommendation he’s been passing on for years.
Now AJ’s friend swiveled his phone around so that Castronovo could say hello to Simona, who runs the front of house while husband Gabriele cooks the food, and who greets the Castronovos like returning family every time they walk through the door. This summer, Castronovo’s got an Italy trip planned – his first since the pandemic – and it will include a big table at Pietro Valentini with friends who’ve not been before.
Of course, it doesn’t take a Rick Steves-style trip to Rome to get a restaurant recommendation out of Paul Castronovo. Anybody who’s familiar with Castronovo, South Florida radio legend, will surely also be familiar with Paul Castronovo, lover of a fine meal.
If you’ve lived in South Florida for any amount of time and you’re unfamiliar with Castronovo’s work, you might want to check and make sure your car’s radio even works. After early radio jobs at former South Florida rock station WSHE and several other stations around the South, he returned to WSHE in 1990 to take over the morning show with newsman Ron Brewer – “Young Ron” to you. In the years that followed, the pair moved stations several times, eventually landing at Castronovo’s current home, Big 105.9, while building one of the biggest and most well-known brands in South Florida radio. Since Young Ron’s 2016 retirement, Castronovo’s continued with several younger producers and co-hosts.
And always, he’s had a thing or two to say on air about food. That now happens largely on Tuesdays, when the show does its Food Wars segments.
“It’s great, I love that conversation,” Castronovo says of the debates he has with callers, co-host Heather Nelson and on-air executive producer Mike Anderson.
“I think Heather and I bring a good balance,” Anderson says. “One of our listeners coined the phrase ‘food snobbery’ with Paul.”
Paul will have a reservation at a fine Italian restaurant; Heather and Mike will have subs from Wawa.
“That’s a fun debate, too,” Anderson says. “People get fired up about that stuff. There’s a time for filet and a time for McDonalds.”
Try It, You Might Like It
For Castronovo, a love of food came naturally. He grew up in the kind of Italian-American family where, as he puts it, “we’re planning dinner at lunch.” He spent his early years in New York and his later childhood and teen years in Palm Beach County. His family didn’t have a lot of money, but they believed in good meals. And from an early age, he was curious about food.
“I would be the one trying something nobody had ever had before,” he says. Not every 7-year-old wants to order the baked Alaska, but little Paulie did. And good food was always around the house. His father, a US customs agent, would come home with, say, an amazing rack of lamb. Paul laughs now, wondering exactly how that came to be.
“We grew up very modestly; there’s no way my dad was paying for rack of lamb.”
Trips to the city always involved good food too, usually in the form of a trip to Ponte’s, an Italian restaurant just a block from the Hudson on the Lower West Side. (When Castronovo graduated from UF, he decided to take a trip to New York and, of course, Ponte’s. He didn’t know his dad had gotten in touch beforehand and left money for his son to have a nice meal. His dad didn’t know Paul would pick this moment to decide to try lobster. After the meal, Mr. Castronovo Sr. mailed a check to cover the whole bill.)
Castronovo passed along that inheritance when he became a dad. From an early age, his two now-grown sons, Nic and AJ, went to good restaurants and ate what the grownups ate. “I don’t think we ever had a box of Hamburger Helper in the house,” Castronovo says.
AJ in particular has taken on his dad’s foodie views. When Castronovo’s younger son, who graduates from UF in the fall, brings his friends home to South Florida, they tend to go out searching for the perfect meal. “I have raised them properly,” he said. “My son is on a quest to find the perfect empanada.” He also drives his friends down to Joe’s Stone Crab – not for the stone crab, but for the excellent fried chicken. “And it’s six bucks,” Castronovo says. “College kids can eat at Joe’s Stone Crab.”
What are some other Castronovo family favorites? Pull up a chair. Anthony’s Runway 84, the Fort Lauderdale institution that closed in May for a major renovation, has been among other things providing the Castronovo family with Christmas dinner for years. Every Christmas Eve, Castronovo pulls up, opens the trunk (it’s too risky to have that food sitting near him in the car for the drive back) and goes in to see Cindy behind the bar, Vincenzo up front and the rest of the team while dinner gets loaded. Castronovo loves the old-school supper club feel of the place and says don’t worry: his old friend, owner Anthony Bruno, knows what he’s doing. When the place reopens, Castronovo says, it’s going to be great. He’s just got one concern: “He’d better be open by Christmas Eve.”
There’s Casa D’Angelo, the restaurant with several locations and incarnations around South Florida that are the creation of Italian chef and restaurateur Angelo Elia. In fact, Castronovo says, don’t tell Anthony Bruno this, but on Anthony’s Runway 84’s last night before the remodel, it was so busy that Castronovo went to Casa D’Angelo instead.
In more recent years, Castronovo’s got into the food and drink business. It started more than a decade ago with Castronovo Vineyards, a winery in Italy’s Abruzzo region that gave Castronovo an excuse for some great trips to Italy and didn’t lose him any money, but didn’t make much either.
“The old joke is true,” he says. “If you want to make a small fortune in wine, start out with a large fortune.” There are, he says, still a few bottles floating around out there.
Then there’s Tacocraft. Anthony Bruno’s a partner in that; other partners include restaurateur Marc Falsetto and another well-known Italian-American, Dan Marino. In 2002, Bruno offered Castronovo a chance to partner on another concept just starting out. Castronovo doesn’t regret much, but he wishes he’d gone in early on Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza. So years later when Bruno said another food concept was in the works, Castronovo went for it. The tacos are great, he says, but you might also want to try a menu item called the Castronovo Quesadilla.
He’s also a partner in Papa’s Pilar, the Key West rum distillery named for Ernest Hemingway’s boat, the Pilar. Good, one imagines, for washing down a quesadilla.
Sealed for Freshness
One recent afternoon as Castronovo talked on the phone, he occasionally had to shout over a loud noise in the background. The avid fisherman doesn’t like freezing the fish he catches, so he invested in a vacuum sealer.
“It preserves the quality so much better,” he says. “I love catching grouper, and I love to eat grouper. Although hogfish is also great. Hmmm, could be a good debate for a Tuesday.”
He’s always made time for fishing – this vacuum-sealing was for the spoils of a weekend Bahamas fishing excursion with AJ and friends – and he makes time for other things too. For a few years now, the Castronovos have spent summers in Maine. (He likes to talk Portland restaurants with another foodie friend, former Sun-Sentinel food critic, columnist and sportswriter Mike Mayo.) And though good food remains a passion, he’s also gotten known in more recent years for losing more than 100 pounds. That, he says, wasn’t actually all that complicated.
“I figured it out,” he says. “I really learned something interesting, which is that you don’t really need to eat like I used to eat.
“I eat about half of what I used to eat. I train hard. I still love going to great restaurants; I just bring half of it home.”
Then there’s work. Castronovo, who turned 60 during the pandemic, has a contract with Big 105.9 through 2026. Ratings remain strong, and Castronovo likes the
radio he’s making. That hasn’t always been the case in the past decade.
When Young Ron Brewer retired in 2016, Castronovo figured, eh, I’m not ready to retire, I’ll just keep going as I always have. “And I figured, I’m Paul Castronovo, they’ll do what I say.”
There was, he admits now, some ego in that. And in the early post-Ron years, the shows didn’t quite work.
“When you replace a legend – and the Paul and Young Ron Show had legendary status – sometimes it just isn’t palatable enough,” he says. “With that, the first show we did right after Ron didn’t have a chance. It didn’t make it.”
But you know that scene in the ’80s movie where the one you’re looking for is the one who’s been right there all along?
“Heather was always there, and every time she’d fill in, she was good,” Castronovo says of co-host Heather Nelson. She came on full-time, and a new partnership was formed.
“Paul and I, kind of through all this turmoil, were the consistent ones there,” Nelson says. “It was pretty easy to build a bond.”
Mike Anderson came later, moving down from his native Baltimore in 2019. “He’s just weird enough as a co-host,” Castronovo says. They’re three different personalities, Castronovo says, and that makes for good, fun radio.
“Mike is perfect,” Nelson says. “He fits right in. Paul and I both have personalities that need a buffer.”
For Anderson, it’s been a fun ride so far. “I think we’re gelling more and more every day,” he says. “The dynamic continues to evolve.”
Paul’s even embraced social media, including a new TikTok account that inevitably includes him in the kitchen, sharing favorite recipes.
Rarely are the three different personalities more on display than when Tuesday talk turns to food.
“On taco Tuesdays, I go to Taco Bell,” Nelson says. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been to a place where you have to make a reservation.”
Castronovo sometimes tries to play culinary Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle. “He’s always trying to shepherd my tastes towards the finer things in life,” she says. “He feels bad for me and for the choices I’ve made. He’s definitely the food snob whereas I’m the one who gets excited whenever Mountain Dew comes out with a new flavor. Paul talks about wine and I talk about the aftertaste of a new Mountain Dew flavor.”
Presented with the charge of food snobbery, Castronovo pleads guilty. But he offers some fatherly advice.
“It’s not about money,” he says. “You can find great food and not spend a lot of money.”
He remembers Italy, his son’s first trip there; he couldn’t have been more than 9. He’d been a trooper, doing those long Italian dinners every night, until finally one night in Venice he had a different idea.
“Do I have to go to another three-hour dinner?” he asked his dad. “Could we just get a little pizza and take it back to the hotel?”
So that’s what they did, walking down side streets until they came to a little hole-in-the-wall place, just two guys making pizza. One of the cheapest meals you could get in the tourist center, and it was perfect.
Or take this summer, when he will once again be reunited with his friends down a Roman sidestreet. Ristorante Pietro Valentini isn’t the fanciest restaurant in Rome, but it doesn’t have to be.
“It’s not just the food,” Castronovo says. “It’s the people. It means a lot. It’s a family situation.”