Flirting with Derek Iavarone was the best part of Jennifer Bethea Mallini's summer of '96. The Tulane sophomore had a huge crush on the popular Ybor bar owner. Sparks simmered over a decade, even as she moved to Hollywood to fashion a career as a wardrobe stylist assisting on national commercials, a feature film and music videos. Iavarone stayed put, becoming manager of his father's legendary South Tampa restaurant, Malio's.
"Every visit home began at Malio's, straight from the airport," she says. "And every time his dad saw me he asked, 'When are you going to come home and marry my son?' ''
Certainly there were other relationships through the years, "but never anyone who stuck,'' Mallini says.
Some weeks the two friends spoke every night, sometimes not for months. But at the end of the day, it was his advice she sought. It was her laugh that gave him a boost.
Says Iavarone: "Jen and I would joke that if we were still single when we were 40, we would have kids together.''
He reminded her of that pact on one of their late-night phone calls in November 2009.
"It's time," he said. "Are you in?"
"I'm in,'' she said.
• • •
Mallini, now 35, was restless in Los Angeles. Something — someone? — was missing from her life.
"I was in tears when Derek called. It was exactly what I had been thinking for six months."
His Valentine's Day gift couldn't have been more romantic: a first-class ticket to Tampa.
They began a monthlong trial, living together in his Dana Shores home this past March.
What did they learn?
"That he's a meticulous towel folder," she teases.
"That I loved her more than I thought,'' says Iavarone, now 41.
When they weren't working at his latest restaurant, Malio's Prime, the couple reconnected with Jesuit and Plant High friends, played golf and envisioned their future. His mother, Shirley, taught Mallini the restaurant's bookkeeping system.
"When Jen left to go back to L.A. in April," Iavarone says, "I called and told her I was miserable and to get back here.''
Gathering their families for brunch on Mother's Day, they signaled their intentions with the ring on her finger: her future mother-in-law's diamond.
Beneath it, a tattoo spells out Derek. His ring finger tattoo says Jen.
Long engagement? Not even a week.
The couple wed in Las Vegas, in a huge Four Seasons suite, on May 12 at 12:01 a.m. Twelve friends were present, counting the newlyweds.
Mr. and Mrs. Iavarone quickly returned to L.A., sent off the moving van and left for Seattle to honeymoon with his sister's family.
No way their big Italian families were going to be left out of the celebration. Several hundred relatives and friends partied July 25 at a Roaring '20s reception. Well-wishers flocked to Malio's Prime for a speakeasy buffet, jazz, croquet and horseshoes on the riverfront.
"We had so much fun,'' says the bride, who wore a white feathered Sue Wong gown with crystal net headpiece. She dressed the groom in a brown pinstripe Calvin Klein suit and fedora.
"We're like two big kids,'' she said. "We love to dress up."
Two kids, grown up and ready to play two new roles: husband and wife.
Heart Beat is a summer series that features recent intriguing stories of love and marriage. Amy Scherzer can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3332.