YBOR CITY — Ray Cuttle, the owner of La Tropicana Cafe for more than two decades, likes to describe himself as a "caretaker of history."
In the 1960s, the no-frills Spanish and Cuban restaurant on Ybor City's main drag was a gathering place for new immigrants and a center for the illegal numbers game known as bolita.
By the time Cuttle took over in 1995, La Tropicana was at its peak— a place where mayors and governors met for cafe con leche and devil crab and where regular customers debated the politics of the day.
"Every time I tried to get paroled I was pulled back in," said Cuttle, now 50. "I couldn't leave until I knew it was in good hands."
He stayed 21 years.
Now, after five decades in his family, the restaurant that hosted celebrities such as President George W. Bush, Govs. Lawton Chiles and Bob Martinez, and Muhammad Ali's longtime fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco has been sold.
The new proprietors are a growing Ybor City development group whose members are acquiring some of the Latin district's landmark buildings. They are Jacob Buchman, Joe Capitano, Darryl Shaw and Ariel Quintela.
"It was always about maintaining my family's and Ybor's history," Cuttle said. "It has served generations. It means a lot to Ybor.''
Offers were plenty, Cuttle said, but he wanted a buyer who would leave the business intact.
Count on it, said new owner Quintela: "As long as there is an Ybor, there should be a La Tropicana."
The sale of the business at 1822 E Seventh Ave. was finalized in February for $2.25 million, according to Hillsborough County property appraiser records.
Together, Shaw and Quintela are developing a handful of Ybor City projects, including the conversion of the Oliva cigar factory into an apartment complex. Buchman has roots in Ybor City dating to the early 1900s, when his parents owned a department store there. Among Capitano's Ybor City ventures are the Ritz theater and Corral Wodiska cigar factory.
Changes under the new owners have been small — a few additions to the menu, some new photos on the wall. They kept the entire staff.
"We wanted the change to go so smooth that no one noticed," Cuttle said. "That's why I didn't announce the sale."
But it is a big deal, said Mario Nuñez, host of the cable access history show Tampa Natives.
Ybor City is losing another family that has long business ties to the Latin district, he said. Another, the family-operated Tamborello Service Station, closed in April after nearly 70 years in the district.
"We're losing our identity one strand of DNA at a time," Nuñez said.
The good news, though, is that La Tropicana will remain, he said.
"It's an institution. It is a landmark. For old-time Tampa people, that is where our grandparents took us as kids for Cuban toast and cafe con leche."
Frank Ippolito, who had ties to the Trafficante crime family, founded the cafe in 1963 across the street from where it is today. At that time, it was known as much for bolita as it was for Cuban sandwiches.
Angel "BeBe" Menendez purchased La Tropicana in 1965 and eight years later moved it to the current location. The new, larger restaurant was built by Angel's brother, Joseph Menendez, father of Cuttle's late wife, Ana Maria.
At first, the cafe's clientele was immigrants and first-generation Americans. Then, the children of these customers went on to college and became doctors, lawyers, businessmen and politicians. Even though they moved from Ybor City, they kept coming back to La Tropicana, Cuttle said, establishing the cafe's roots as a melting pot of working classes.
Also contributing to the character of the place was the constant presence of Roland Manteiga, late owner of Ybor City's La Gaceta newspaper. Manteiga, known for bringing the Latin district's issues to the attention of elected officials, became such a regular he was given his own table in the back corner. From there, he held court with leaders at all levels of government.
In 1995, Cuttle was fresh out of Atlanta's John Marshall Law School when he and his wife were asked to help run La Tropicana for a stint because Angel Menendez had grown ill.
Angel Menendez died soon after and the cafe became Cuttle's full-time career.
"Three children and 20 years later I was still there," Cuttle said. "And with no regrets. I've loved every moment."
Cuttle was known for taking care of customers. If one was going through rough financial times, tabs were not always expected to be repaid.
"Ybor is a family and I loved my customers," he said.
Then his wife died in 2012 of a heart attack.
La Tropicana was still family, he said, but secondary to his three kids, and running the cafe kept him away from them too often. It was time to sell.
He said he has no plans other than being a dad.
"I stuck around because I felt La Tropicana needed me. My kids need me more."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Paul Guzzo at (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.