The famed two-story brick building is quite unassuming from the outside yet this is where the magic happens.
This is the place where brides and their families spend big bucks for extravagant designs, only custom made to the bride. This is the place where young Latina girls want their quincereras done just right with only the best flowers. This is the place where a young man who doesn’t have a lot of money to spend, will get a custom bouquet for the special person in his life.
Of course, this is the culture phenomenon of Madre’s and the D’Amato family. Every Sunday night for an hour, we get to follow members of the family as they navigate through New York’s finest (and sometimes, not-so finest) for their celebrity clients, rich clients, and just regular-degular folks like you and me.
We also get to take a sneak peek of their private lives away from the floral shop as cameras travel with the family to vacations and get-togethers.
Walking inside the building, a hostess a la restaurant-style, shows me to my seat. We walk past walls of pictures full of celebrity and high-profile clients, all hugging a curvy woman with sandy-blondish hair and a big smile.
That woman is the impeccable Nicola D’Amato-Rodriguez, co-owner of the Madre’s floral shop and who in person, greets me with the same big smile and hug. “I’m a hugger,” her voice is smoky and full of wisdom, “everyone gets hugs here.”
The rise of the D’Amato family is what legends are made of. Winning the only lottery ticket to a staggering $300 million jackpot, Nicola quit all of her jobs and opened her dream shop, a floral store. It started as a little corner shop in a hidden nook on Staten Island before the popularity of the flowers grew the store into the middle of Manhattan.
A reality show, numerous magazine covers, and a ton of celebrity and noteworthy clientele spread the word about the flowers. Anyone can get a dozen roses; no big deal. It was the personal touches, the customer service of the family and all of the employees that made Madre’s stand out from the competition.
A small menu of appetizers and beverages awaits me and Nicola tells me to order whatever I like. “No charge,” she smiles again, “we order from here all of the time.”
I decide on the caprese sandwich and small pizza while Nicola gets the chicken Caesar salad. “Just one moment,” she pulls out a walkie-talkie and speaks fluent Italian into it. A deep voice replies in English and Nicola rolls her eyes. “I can speak nothing but Italian to them,” she refers to her sons, “and they all answer back in English.”
I want to ask her who was the voice on the other end but the anticipation holds me back. It could be any of her sons or other family members of the D’Amato tribe that work in the business. Of course, the floral designs are just one small fraction of the show’s viewership. The D’Amato brothers – Nicholas, Kieran, Joseph, Eliodoro, and Antonio – are very easy on the eyes.
While the world knows them as the #BrothersBae, their upbringing was no laughing matter. Nicola was nearly eight months pregnant with Nicholas when she became a teenage bride. Four more sons in several years rounded out the family.
Antonio was just an infant when the family patriarch, Giorgio, left. “No rhyme or reason,” Nicola says with a sigh, indicating a pain that’s still present many years later. “Never a phone call or a letter except the divorce papers.” She looks pensive for a moment as if she’s trying to decide the next thought. “I read the Book of Job a lot during that time.”
While Nicholas and Kieran helped support the family with after-school jobs, Nicola worked a variety of jobs to keep a roof over their heads, lights on, and food in the pantry. “A lot of things weren’t repaired back then. We couldn’t afford someone to come out and fix things when my kids were small so as they became older, they learned how to fix things themselves. Regular handymen, I tell you.”
A chance lottery ticket changed the entire landscape of the family. Other than the typical new money purchases – upgraded clothing, cars, and each brother has a nice home – most of the lottery winnings remained in the bank. Joseph, the family’s business manager, invested the money wisely. The D’Amato family owns several properties and are silent partners in a few other businesses.
“When you grow up poor, you remember what it feels like,” Joseph commented as he joins us for lunch. “No one looks back on being poor and thinks, ‘Ah, yes, the good ol’ days!’ No one does that. We never want to go back to that, neither.” Looking every bit of a wealthy executive, Joseph appears he just stepped out of Wall Street and into Madre’s.
He’s the COO of the D’Amato Enterprises and makes all of the business decisions for the family. He’s also the reason why the family didn’t become like many lottery winners and broke within a few years. Married with twins to celebrity fashion designer, Zoe D’Amato, Joseph is often seen on private planes, having expensive lunches with business clientele, and around Silicon Valley, where the family are private investors in a number of start-ups and businesses.
Out of the five brothers, he’s definitely wears his wealth on his sleeve. “Appearances only,” he grumbles, “if I could go to a board meeting wearing my Timbs, I would.”
I ask Nicola and Joseph if they would ever consider meeting with Giorgio to finally clear the air and get closure. “I got all of the closure I needed the moment he left us,” Joseph says rather defiantly. “Look, he only showed up when we won all of that money. Once he heard about our popularity, he writes a bestselling book telling his side of the story. What side of the story? You left your wife and five sons. There is no story to tell about that.”
“But you are in some contact with him, right?”
“A few emails here and there isn’t going to make up for thirty years of being gone. It wasn’t like he was kidnapped or was a POW in a foreign land; that stronzo was living just a few miles away from us at one point.” Joey tightly clenches his fist and lets go. “I really don’t know what we would have in common to talk about.”
“What about you?” I ask Nicola. “How would you feel if Giorgio wanted to have a sit-down talk with you?”
Nicola lightly shrugs. “I’m open to it but I don’t see the point. I spent two years of my life, angry, very angry at him. And those are two years I can honestly say I wasted. He was still gone and I was still alone raising five boys. I had to teach them how to become men when I was still trying to figure out where in the woman handbook was the chapter, ‘You’re Going to be a Single Mother.’” Nicola softly shakes her head. “Whatever is done is done. He made his decision thirty years ago; I’m good.”
I’m about to take a bite of pizza when the chair besides me suddenly moves. I look over and my heart is lodged in my throat. Ladies (and some gents), Eliodoro “Eli” D’Amato is even more handsome in person.
He has these light brown eyes that aren’t quite brown but aren’t quite amber. He smells heavenly and that smile…my goodness, that smile, is why millions of women turn in every Sunday.
“I apologize for being late. Traffic was just…” he shakes his head and doesn’t finish his sentence. As a native New Yorker, we all know what he means without even saying a word. “I’m just glad I’m here.”
The most popular – and probably the most misunderstood brother – is finally here. Dressed in jeans and fitted shirt that does nothing to hide his muscular frame, Eli digs into lunch after a brief quiet prayer. “We were all raised Catholic,” he reveals after he’s done, “some of us are more than the others.”
“God knows my sins,” Joseph smiles, “I don’t need to be in church to explain it.”
“Hence why I just said,” Eli chuckles, “some of us are more Catholic than the others.”
Becoming one of the world’s most sought-after floral designers didn’t just happen overnight. In fact, if Eli originally had it his way, it wouldn’t have happened at all.
He went to New York University and graduated with a BFA in studio art. His dream was to work for a Fortune 500 company and travel the world after he graduated. One night, he received a fateful phone call from Joseph and Nicola, asking for his help in creating flyers and the website for Madre’s. “I told them, I’m only doing this for a few months and that’s it,” Eli chuckles, “I had no interest in flowers, in brides, in any of that. My sole interest was computers.”
Once he was done with the layout of the website, he overheard his mother speak to a bride about what she wanted. While Nicola was being thorough in her questioning, Eli wasn’t impressed. “She was asking the typical things – do you want peonies? What’s your favorite color? What are your wedding colors? How do you feel about hydrangeas?” He shook his head. “Anyone can ask that to anybody and guess what? You’re going to get a copycat wedding of somebody else’s that’s not yours.” He takes a bite of his gnocchi and wipes his mouth. “Think about your bedroom. You might’ve been in a ton of bedrooms in your life – your parents, your friends, others. I bet you anything they didn’t look like yours. Why should your wedding look like somebody else’s?”
Creating bouquets wasn’t as simple as he makes it seem. In fact, Eli actually had to study nearly every flower and plant on earth. “I’m still learning because there are new ones every year. People will combine things and see what works. Sometimes it comes out spectacular and sometimes not so much.”
“How many species of roses do you know?” I ask.
“Not all 150 but close to it,” he replies as if it’s not a big deal, “but I definitely don’t know the thousands of hybrids and such.”
With a talent in drawing, Eli often sketches a makeup floral design and presents it to the customer within minutes of getting to know them. His personal bouquets range anywhere between $30 to an extravagant $500. “That five hundred dollar price tag was by accident,” he smiles, “a bride came in one time and said, ‘I want a five hundred dollar bouquet.’ Most of our bouquets range from ten to a hundred dollars. I tried to talk her down but she was insistent. Was I really going to say no?”
Of course, it helps that Eli is one of the few – if not the only – heterosexual male floral designers. His full sleeves and light goatee have made him a fan of both genders and those in between. GLAAD honored the family show at its recent gala where all five brothers and their significant others attended.
He’s currently helping with a gay summer wedding in the Hamptons. “We don’t discriminate,” he takes a sip of water, “if you want flowers, we’ll be happy to provide. Just don’t be a dick.”
Eli is quite the enigma. He often puts on Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane, and Bessie Coleman to concentrate when doing the initial design. Kendrick Lamar, Rae Sremmurd, and Missy Elliott fills the warehouse when he puts the creation in action.
But don’t be fooled. He proudly owns a ‘NSYNC CD and is hoping for a reunion. (“C’mon now,” Eli has no shame, “every dude in Harlem was bumpin’ “Girlfriend” when it came out!”)
“I only work at my desk when I do the initial stages and sometimes adjust what the client wants. Seventy-five percent of the time, I’m in the warehouse with everyone else.”
“Twenty-five is upstairs?” I clarify.
“Fifteen percent is working. The other ten percent is sleeping.” He winks. “I need a break now and again.”
Does he ever. Eli estimates Madre’s does an average of ten weddings a month, with prime season being between April and August, where the number jumps up to a blistering twenty a month during that time. “Usually things are set in stone prior to the weddings, but brides often change their minds and well, it’s espresso and go time.”
He often works 24-hour shifts during those months and is lucky if he sleeps in his own bed at night. “My kids are very understanding that when Daddy has to work, it means he can’t be home for ice cream at night.” He lets out a deep breath. It’s clear he loves his career but he also resents it at the sacrifice of not seeing his children as much he wants to during the peak months. “I can totally understand what my mother went through with us.”
When he’s not doing the physical designs, he has a team of assistants who knows what he wants when they see the sketches. “They’re the hardest working people I know,” he nods, “sometimes they’ll have contests between each other on who can do the design the quickest.”
Eli as a boss is just as personable as the guy people see on TV. “He always inquires about us, and our families,” Eli’s longtime assistant, Maria, confirmed. She’s worked for Eli since the inception and they’re best friends. They often attend family gatherings with each other, and go on double-dates with Maria and her wife. “If we need time off, he grants it as long as there’s coverage. He does work us hard, no doubt, but he’s not mean about it.”
“Employees work better if they respect the person in charge,” Eli replies, “If they don’t respect me, why should they care? Ask any person who has a boss they hate. They’re only there to clock in and out until something better comes along.”
Eli’s charm has definitely worked. The Madre’s chain boasts of long-time employees and while some do eventually leave, it’s never because of creative clashes with the bosses. “Employees are allowed to give their input. Hell, if they have a better idea than mine, I definitely want to hear it!” Eli laughs. “And sometimes they do, I’m not going to front.”
Fluent in Italian and Spanish, Eli also speaks plenty of street when the mood arises. A recent episode showed the viewers the light banter when he and Antonio were trying to teach Nicola slang words like, ‘on fleek’ and ‘bae.’ “I like Italian,” Nicola lamented during the episode, “there’s no mistaken on what anyone means when you say, ‘go to hell.’”
“I grew up in the streets,” he answered a question that was on my mind. It’s clear looking at Eli and Antonio they have a bit more edge to them than the other brothers. “I wasn’t messing around with drugs or anything like that. But I knew what was hot. I knew what was going on. Everything originates in the Bronx and Harlem before the rest of the world sees it. Everything.” His voice is smooth as whiskey. “What was ghetto back then is now considered to be hipster now if you can believe that shit.”
“I’ve known Eli forever,” one of his best friends, Quentin Jones, says. They’ve known each other since they were in diapers. “He’s never been the type to try to be down or anything like that. He’s just him. This isn’t him acting or putting out false pretenses. Take him or leave him. He truly doesn’t give a shit either way.”
It’s Eli’s lackadaisical yet smug attitude that often brings him some unwanted attention. His IG page is full of thirsty women, eager to be Mrs. Eli D’Amato. His kindness towards others has made some people call him a simp. When he showed compassion for a recent transgender wedding, a few began to question his sexuality.
When he was photographed at a recent protest in support of Black Lives Matter, it was the first time Eli was called racist. “That still confuses me,” his eyes crinkle with curiosity and annoyance. “My children and some of their cousins are half-black. My exes are black. Most of my friends are black. I have a few black sisters-in-law. I have black employees. Am I not supposed to care about what happens to them?”
Part Two of Eli’s “interview” will be posted next week.