Two restaurant owners who are in different stages of their lives are connected as one expands and the other contracts their offerings on Sanibel Island. Matzaluna, an iconic restaurant on Sanibel Island, will be closing in mid-November, ending a 27-year run.
Local legendary restaurant owner Matt Asen is looking to downsize. And, a younger couple, Jeramie Campana and his wife, Debra Campana, transplanted from Chicago, is looking to boost its offerings of Sanibel restaurants.
Asen, 69, has been feeding islanders and tourists at the Timbers for 43 years. He also owns the Sanibel Grill and the Prawnbroker and the University Grill in Fort Myers. He opened Matzaluna at 1200 Periwinkle Way in 1994.
Photographs of Asen with hundreds of celebrities adorn the walls at the Timbers. They range from presidents George W. and George H.W. Bush to basketball stars like Larry Bird and Reggie Miller to musicians, like Asen’s look-a-like, former Van Halen singer Sammy Hagar.
Asen will continue co-owning the Matzaluna building and property with three business partners while leasing it for the new concept.
Retaining restaurant workers, supply-chain issues and aging and health issues combined for Asen to take a step back.
“We had 27 years, which in dog years is like 249, and restaurant years, it’s like a million,” Asen says. “At 27 years at Matzaluna, it’s successful. We’re going to get out while we’re still making money. And enjoy life a little more. I don’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery.”
Asen had spinal fusion surgery seven months ago. He’s back to walking without a cane. But at age 69, and his three partners ages 69, 76 and 79, Asen said the time was right.
“It’s sort of sad,” Asen says. “But it’s time to move on and enjoy more than I do, and I enjoy life very much.”
Asen said he was happy to lease the building to the Campanas, who grew up visiting Sanibel Island with her parents, who owned a timeshare. In 2017, they sold their catering business in the northern suburbs of Chicago and moved to Sanibel.
“It sort of reminds me when we were younger and full of energy and great hopes,” Asen said.
The Campanas opened their first Sanibel restaurant, the Paper Fig Kitchen, in 2018 at 2003 Periwinkle Way. Since then, they have added 400 Rabbits, a Mexican-themed restaurant that opened last New Year’s Eve at 975 Rabbit Road.
Over the weekend, the Campanas opened Fig East End, a deli and convenience store at 359 Periwinkle Way. It had been an abandoned deli, and it’s the only place near the lighthouse and the east end of the island for beach-goers to buy ice.
“The former East End Deli,” Jeramie Campana says. “It’s been closed for a number of years now. We are revamping it. We opened two days ago. We’re bringing some stuff back to the east end that’s desperately needed.”
Up next: Bamboo, a Pan-Asian-themed restaurant that will be at the former Il Tesoro location at 751 Tarpon Bay Road. It will be the only Asian-themed restaurant on the island. After that, the Campanas can turn their attention to the reopening Matzaluna under a new name yet to be revealed.
“It will stay Italian,” Campana says. “It will stay family friendly, it will be a place where locals can come and hang out around the bar, meet new people, meet locals and meet tourists. It’s a really great spot, continuing on that Matzaluna tradition for great Italian food for the island.”
Campana has plans to revamp and upgrade the pizza offerings there. He and a business partner traveled to Chicago and met with some Italian pizza gurus.
“We learned the proper way to do wood-fired pizzas,” Campana says. “Eventually, we’re going to offer Chicago-style pizzas as well. We’re going to make our own dough.”
There wasn’t much of a debate in changing the Matzaluna name, Campana said.
“Change it,” he says. “We need to make it our own. We’re just taking advantage of these opportunities.”