Since he was 21, Frankie Caravello has had a love and a passion for saltwater aquariums. The 2nd generation Italian-American from New Smyrna Beach, Florida, has always been into saltwater coral and fish. An aquarium is something he can look into and just get lost in—to him, it’s another world and just seems to wash all the problems away.
Frankie, now 37, turned that passion into a successful business of selling saltwater coral and fish. Over the last couple years, his website, www.exotic-reefs.com, has became one of the most popular retail sites in the industry.
Frankie took some time to chat with Ciao Pittsburgh recently about his business and his Italian heritage.
CP: Can you the tell the readers a little about yourself?
Frankie: I’m a second generation Italian born here in the states. My daughter, who is 17, lives with my girlfriend and I. My parents live five minutes up the street. I also have two sets of Aunts and Uncles who live in the same town. We’re all close and get together as often as possible. My family and I moved here about six years ago and opened up a used car dealership. Business has been good and we even opened up a second location about three years ago.
CP: Where are you from and where do you currently live?
Frankie: I was born in Miami and raised in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I joined the Military in 1995 and served my four years as a cook for the Marines. When you think of Marines you do not think of cooks but I took great pride in cooking. I’m very proud of my time served. While in college, I took culinary classes, and even won multiple cooking competitions (always Italian cooking of course!) Six years ago, I moved to New Smyrna Beach, about three hours north of Ft. Lauderdale. I make it a point to visit my hometown at least once a year.
CP: Can you tell us about your Italian heritage?
Frankie: My grandparents, along with other family members, moved to New Jersey from Palermo, Italy in the late 1930’s. My father (the first in our family born in the states) was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1941. My parents, along with other members of our family, moved to Miami, Florida and I was born there in 1977.
Since they moved here in the 1930’s, some relatives stayed in New Jersey while others moved to Miami with my immediate family. Others moved to different parts of the U.S. We try to get together as often as possible but of course it is difficult when everyone lives far away.
Christmas is always a big time of the year for us. Growing up we would always go to my Aunt’s house and had a very traditional Italian Christmas Eve that included dozens of family members. Those dinners would consist of seafood like Baccala, Calamari, Cod, Clams, and many other seafood. Following that, Christmas Eve meal would be endless desserts (as if we didn’t eat enough for dinner!) Then just as everyone is in the middle of digesting, and can’t move off the couch, the Grandfather clock strikes midnight. At that time (the first minutes of Christmas), the wives start bringing out the true main dishes. Belt buckles get undone and we prepare for the feast of a lifetime—Chicken Cacciatore, Meatballs, Hot Sausage, Chicken Cutlets, Braciole, Manicotti and many other dishes.
Over the years our family has thinned out and moved to different parts of the country so holidays do not consist of as many relatives anymore. Now, it’s about 12 to 15 of us every year and I have taken the reigns on hosting Christmas Day dinners. We always choose different Italian main dishes but we continue to make our homemade Manicotti and Tiramisu every year. Not as traditional as when I was growing up but I do all I can to make an amazing Italian meal and bring our family together for some great times.
Frankie: Where do I begin! I love meatballs, but unfortunately it’s hard to find good meatballs. My grandma from Palermo, who made the best meatballs ever, was a fabulous cook. She was responsible for most of the Italian meals growing up. In New Jersey, she had her own garden but here in Florida she would drive two hours away to the west coast of Florida just to get the freshest tomatoes for her sauce.
My mom makes great meatballs also and because of that my dad will never even try a meatball from any restaurant. Me, on the other hand, I have to at least try a side dish of meatballs from every Italian restaurant I go to. Some might find it crazy but it’s something I do and it’s something I will always do. It’s almost like an addiction—I can tell so much from how a meatball is made.
In my opinion, it takes true Italian origin and passion to make a good meatball. I might enjoy the meal I am served, but if I am not satisfied with how that restaurant made their meatballs then I will never go back. Over the last couple years, I would say there has been maybe 2 out of 20 restaurants that have made some killer meatballs which I would be happy to visit again.
My true passion when it comes to Italian food, however, is Manicotti. Of all the dishes I grew up eating, Manicotti is what I liked most. My grandma would make it throughout the year and she would always make tons. She would give my parents over 50 pieces to freeze and we would be able to have it whenever we wanted. In high school, my friends and I had what we called “Italian Night.” That’s where a couple friends would come over and my mom would make dozens of Manicotti and we would basically eat as many as we possibly could (we were teenagers, we played high school sports, and we loved Italian cooking). My friend James, who happened to be the skinniest of our group, has the Manicotti eating record at 18!
There was never a recipe as everything was in my grandma’s head. However, in my teen years, I started to watch her closely and write down notes. While cooking in the military, I made it many many times and finally perfected the recipe. No we never served it in the military, I just had the ingredients and the knowledge to make it, and my fellow Marines sure did appreciate it. When I got out of the military in 1999, I moved back to Ft. Lauderdale and continued to make it just as my grandma did. I would always make more than enough so my parents would have some for their freezer as well.
Although I make different Italian dishes every year for the holidays, Manicotti will always be on the menu in honor of my grandma and our Italian heritage. Incidentally, I will never try Manicotti from any restaurant. For the very few that might actually make their own shells, they might be good, but I still feel I would be disappointed.
Frankie: It’s not a cheap hobby, owning a coral aquarium can get costly. I have been to dozens of aquarium stores throughout the years and it’s very easy to spend a weeks pay within 20 minutes in any store. I wanted to find a way to not only save money for myself but to be able to save money for all the others that have a passion just as I do.
Corals are alive and grow just like all animals. When my corals started growing, I looked into a process called “fragging” which is a way of cutting corals and allowing the cut pieces to get healthy and form another colony. I did that with some of my corals and traded with other members in the saltwater community.
My girlfriend, Melissa, not only supported this hobby but she has a true passion for it just as I do. About three years ago, we decided to get a couple more aquariums and try to sell fish and coral out of them. We got all the licenses needed and started very small. In no time at all, aquarists all around us knew about our small business and visited us on a regular basis. We even had customers who would drive over 2 hours just to buy from us. It would blow our minds that we had that type of support.
We provided healthy corals and fish with very reasonable prices. We saved every penny brought in and after being in this business for a year we decided to expand from our store in our local town to the entire United States. We purchased more aquariums, lighting, and equipment and came up with the name of our business (and online store), “Exotic Reefs.”
My daughter, Jade, supported what we were doing and she has been helping us out for the last couple years, making this a true family business. We wanted something different than what people can go to any aquarium store and buy. We were limited on space and decided the differences would be superior attention to detail as well as hard to find corals and fish. By superior attention to detail I mean that we did not just want to sell fish and coral, we wanted to sell extremely healthy fish and coral.
One thing that bugs me in this hobby is that most stores get fish and coral in and try to sell it as quickly as possible. Some stores even offer discounts on buying fish that are still in bags from when it just got shipped to that store. Things like that disturb me; there is no way of even knowing if that fish is healthy or disease free, yet they are selling it at a discounted price to someone in the hobby and it could potentially crash that persons entire setup. Not to mention that most places are understaffed which leads to dirty tanks and unhealthy fish and coral.
That’s where we come in—we keep it simple and manageable. We have four systems to take care of which consists of 16 different aquariums and one display system that has 15 sections for different fish. Because of the minimal amount of systems, we are able to monitor the conditions and keep everything clean and healthy on a regular basis. Any fish and coral we bring in goes through a three-week process where we make sure it’s healthy and disease free before selling it to someone else.
We also focus on rare corals and fish that most people will not find in the average aquarium store. Some of the rarer pieces we had in the last couple months has been a Dr. Seuss Soapfish, Blotched Anthias, Earlie Wrasses, Lineatus Wrasses, Designer Clownfish and Master Scolys. Even after the whole process, we go through to ensure the quality of our livestock we are still able to be one of the most inexpensive retailers in the country.
CP: What do you enjoy most about it?
Frankie: I enjoy dealing with a whole other world on a regular basis. It’s hard to explain, but it’s truly like a different world, like being put on Avatar and being able to examine and live with all those amazing species. It’s an endless array of color and personality that can brighten anyone’s day. Not only do I enjoy being able to see all this beauty on a regular basis but I feel honored to be able to share it all with others in the hobby.
CP: What accomplishments in life are you most proud of?
Frankie: That would have to be my daughter. After she was born, I became a different person and quickly realized that she was the reason I was put on this earth. It has been her and I for about 14 years now and we have had many wonderful times together. Of course, it has been a bumpy road but we have both come a long way and our lives have changed for the better. She is now an honor roll senior in high school and has the whole world at her fingertips. I couldn’t be more proud.
CP: What are some of your other favorite hobbies?
Frankie: Besides cooking, which I enjoy very much, other hobbies I enjoy are boating, surfing, painting, and bringing my three Shih Tzu’s (Jazzper, Jazzman, and Jazzby) to the dog park or out on the boat.
CP: What advice would you like to share with other aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners?
Frankie: I don’t know who this quote came from but it does make a lot of sense. “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I say, do what you love. Life is too short to be unhappy. It’s important to enjoy yourself and keep moving forward.