SPRING HILL — All about the walls of Philly's Best Cheesesteak House hangs evidence of the long-standing sports rivalry between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia.
Bucs vs. Eagles, Lightning vs. Flyers and, of course, the Rays vs. Phillies.
On Friday, the day after the Tampa Bay Rays earned their first World Series win, restaurant owner Sheila Surrena, dressed in her best Rays T-shirt, fired up the stove in preparation for the lunchtime crowd. She admits she was a bit irritated when her husband, Angelo Martinez, walked in proudly wearing his beloved bright-red Phillies jersey.
But not surprised.
"All I can say is, he's got his team," Sheila said as she scraped her griddle. "And I've got mine. I believe in the Rays. I think they're going to make it."
Though it will likely be late in the week before the World Series winner is decided, the friendly sports tug-of-war between the couple will most likely endure for a long time to come.
For Surrena, 36, who grew up in Tampa, the home team always comes first. For Martinez, 45, who was born in Tampa but grew up a stone's throw across the Delaware River from Philadelphia in Camden, N.J., it's a bit more complicated.
"Don't get me wrong, I love watching the Bucs and Rays," he said. "But when they play against Philly teams, I have to follow my heart."
Which is why, when it comes to the World Series, Martinez is torn. He wants to cheer the astonishing fortunes of the Rays while staying loyal to his lifelong admiration for Philadelphia teams.
In a sense, he's been here before.
"When the Rays beat the Red Sox last week (to set up another Tampa Bay-Philadelphia matchup), I said, 'Here we go again,' " Martinez recalled.
"Think of it. The Bucs had to beat the Eagles to win the Super Bowl. The Lighting had to beat the Flyers to win the Stanley Cup. It seems like every Tampa Bay team has to go through Philly to win a championship."
That probably explains why Martinez's relationship with the City of Brotherly Love remains close to his heart.
Ten years ago, he stumbled across the tiny restaurant on Forest Oaks Boulevard and knew he had found a familiar taste of home — a restaurant that served the kind of cheesesteak that devotees consider to be something between magic and art.
Two years after signing on as a cook in the kitchen, he pulled together enough money to buy the place.
Although Martinez admits there are probably as many cheesesteak recipes as there are places that serve them, he likes to think that the version served at Philly's Best is the closest anyone in Hernando County will come to finding the genuine article.
He uses finely chopped top round beef mixed with white American cheese and served with or without chopped onions. And, of course, he uses the only rolls that a cheesesteak should ever rest upon — foot-longs shipped in from the famous Amoroso bakery in Philadelphia.
"I get people from Philly who tell me it's the best they've ever had down here," Martinez said. "That makes me proud to hear that."
The restaurant also serves as a sort of museum for Martinez's vast collection of Philadelphia sports memorabilia, including signed photos, magazine covers, collector cards and sports figurines of his heroes.
However, in order to keep the family peace, the collection shares equal space with his wife's favorite athletes from Tampa Bay.
A photo of legendary Flyers Hall of Fame goalie Bernie Parent hangs near a picture of an equally conflicted former Buc Mike Alstott, shown wearing a Phillies jersey at a game at the Phillies' spring training home in Clearwater.
A glass display case is equally divided between Bucs and Eagles items.
"We try to keep it fun between us," Martinez said. "The truth is, we probably get twice as many Tampa Bay fans in here as we do Philly fans. It wouldn't make much sense to keep everything too personal."
As for his prediction on how the World Series will play out? Martinez said his heart is leaning toward Philadelphia because of the city's long drought — 25 years — without a major sports championship.
But his head, and perhaps his business sense, tell him that the Rays will prevail.
"After all," he said, "this cheesesteak shop is in Florida."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.