TAMPA — Was it politics, tamales or the cute teenager behind the counter that kept Raymond "Nick" Cruz around a West Tampa retail and office strip center? The answer: all three.
Back in high school, Nick spent a lot of time on that block, at the Hillsborough County Democratic Party headquarters. His mother, Janet Cruz, now state representative for District 62, ran numerous campaigns from there, and his sister, Ana Cruz, was the party's statewide executive director.
Also, after school in those days, Veronica Azucena was usually next door, helping out at her mother's Mexican restaurant, El Norteño.
"I was too shy to talk to her," said Nick, "but I'd go over to buy a dozen tamales just to see her."
If not for a football injury at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona, they might never have said more than "how many?" and "thanks."
Instead, back home and employed as an apprentice chef, he knew where to find his politically active family. And tamales. And Veronica.
"I almost didn't recognize her, all grown up and gorgeous," said Nick, as shy as ever. He spoke more to himself than her.
"I told myself, 'I'm going to marry that girl one day.' "
On the next visit, with a buddy along for a conversation decoy, he scribbled his name and phone number on her math homework.
Veronica called "the sweet, shy guy with adorable curls" as soon as they locked up the restaurant that night.
"Nick was my first date," she said. "I was at Tampa Bay Tech and we started hanging out." Coming from close-knit, Catholic families of Mexican heritage created an easy, fast friendship, she said, and in 2005, they moved in together.
The next two years "were good times, fishing, going to flea markets," said Nick, "but also silly, immature arguments."
One was bad enough to break them up.
Now 32, Nick started his own business, Blue Catering, specializing in paella. Veronica, 27, worked for a nursing staffing company before becoming a grass roots coordinator for Step Up for Students, a Tampa-based organization that administers tax-credit vouchers to low-income kids in Florida.
"We're an interesting dynamic," Veronica said. "I'm very hard-headed and Nick makes everything easy. He's a great cook and I burn water. I run marathons and Nick doesn't like to break a sweat."
The ex-couple kept in touch through other relationships, including Veronica's brief marriage and subsequent divorce. Meeting for dinner in November 2012, they relived a decade of memories, and optimistically decided they wanted more.
"We never really let each other go," Veronica said. "He's unconditionally patient with me."
They married a year later, on Dec. 7, at his father and stepmother Ray and Kay Cruz's circa 1924 cigar baron's home in South Tampa. A mariachi band serenaded 250 guests congregated on the front lawn. Ana Cruz was the groom's maid of honor; Veronica's brothers, Julio and Jorge Azucena, served as "bridesmen."
Two family friends played important roles: Mayor Bob Buckhorn officiated the ceremony and chef Jeannie Pierola (of Edison: Food+Drink Lab) catered dinner.
"Like dinner at Epcot," one guest described the meal, including bouillabaisse shooters; stone crab, oyster and shrimp raw bar; rabbit and duck paella and more.
Chef Nick approved the menu completely; his wife swooned over the Lucky Charms wedding cake, baked with the marshmallow cereal as a symbol of good fortune.
Amy Scherzer can be reached at email@example.com or call (813) 226-3332.