The place on West Columbus Drive was, by any measure, shabby and uninviting. But for three decades, Cuban-born Alfredo Naranjo served up Tampa's most unusual — and, some argue, most flavorful — ice cream at his West Tampa eatery, Snack City.
Snack City closed last month after 50 years in business, the last 30 or so with Naranjo as proprietor. He would mix by hand hard-to-find ice cream flavors like mango, ginger or Cuban mamey fruit, and dish it out to an astoundingly diverse clientele.
The ice cream often would come with a side of political discourse or, on some Saturday nights, a heartfelt romantic ballad. Naranjo was noted for his passion, much of which he poured into "the art of gelateria,'' said Gary Mormino, a professor of Florida studies at USF's St. Petersburg campus.
As a customer of more than a decade, "I bet I've recommended that place to thousands of students and friends," Mormino said. "You could make an argument it was the most democratic—- small d — establishment in Tampa.
"There were African-Americans from the neighborhood, Latino immigrants, yuppies. The first time I was there, I was in line behind two Indian physicians. They were in their lab coats, and they were each ordering a gallon of mango ice cream. They told me Alfredo imported all his mangoes from India."
You would never guess at the quality from looking at the outside, Mormino said. "The place was a dump. It was not a place for a first date." Still, he took dozens of teachers there after workshops every year, encouraging them to sample the mamey or the guava.
Snack City's closing had long been rumored, partly because Naranjo himself would threaten to close it. Then 75, he told the Times in April 2008 that "I won't be here long." But Naranjo and his wife, Sylvia, endured until early November.
The Naranjos could not be reached for comment.
"I was really surprised," said Andrew Huse, food historian, USF special collections librarian and author of the recently released book, The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture and Cuisine.
"I think maybe Naranjo was kind of afraid to raise his prices, especially because . . . it's not a big money area."
Huse was introduced to Snack City by Mormino. And he dropped by often, even though it was out of his way, frequently grabbing a $6 half-gallon of coconut or ginger and taking it home to mix with sautéed fruit.
"One of the things that made it really addictive is unlike American ice cream, it doesn't rely on sugar as much," Huse said. "(With) the chocolate, the first thing you tasted was cocoa, then the sweetness would come in. It really allowed the ice cream to have more flavor in my opinion."
Huse said Naranjo also made a mean frita Cubana, a Cuban hamburger on an onion roll with mustard and onions and potato sticks on the side. "It was just a great place for snacks," he said.
It is the loss of Naranjo's "extraordinary" ice cream, though, that will be felt the most, Mormino said.
"How rare is it in life," he noted, "to taste an entirely new flavor?"
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