ST. PETERSBURG — For nearly 30 years, Pepin was a staple of the city's restaurant scene. It was a place to grab a light business lunch, or sip sangria as Spanish as its owner. It was a favorite of the city's power brokers, but its bare wood tables were just as popular with families.
"I think there were more financial deals closed in that restaurant than there were in any bank in St. Petersburg," longtime customer Eddie Dunn said.
The man behind it all, Jose Cortes, died Aug. 5 after a long struggle with diabetes. He was 79.
His Mediterranean-style Spanish restaurant on Fourth Street N closed three years ago, but memories and fondness for the place had not faded. Since his death, friends and former customers have reached out to his daughter, Monique Massaro, and his widow, Delia, the family said.
They talked about how Mr. Cortes would float about the restaurant, sharing wine and conversation. Often, he would play the piano for guests as they dined.
"When you got to know him, you realized he was quite the philosopher, and a very, very perceptive individual," said Bob Ulrich, a former St. Petersburg mayor.
A native of Zaragoza, Spain, Mr. Cortes immigrated to the United States in 1963. He met his wife, Delia, while studying at Florida State University, where he earned a master's degree in music and a doctorate in Spanish literature. The couple married in 1973.
"He and my mom were always together. Wherever one was, the other was, too," said Massaro, 49, the couple's only child.
The couple opened Pepin in 1974, and it generated a spinoff, Pepin On the Beach, in Indian Shores. The dishes were handcrafted and the recipes original. They served homemade sangria and fresh-baked bread. They were known for their salad with green olives, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese.
Mr. Cortes was so dedicated to authenticity that he once flew his entire staff of 23 to Spain so they could learn the nuances, not just of Spanish cooking, but of table service, too.
"I am very appreciative of their good work," Mr. Cortes said at the time. "It doesn't hurt me to be generous."
Mr. Cortes loved to fly-fish, hike and, later in life, play golf. He was a classically trained pianist, and he would often be persuaded to take over the piano at Pepin. Though talented, Mr. Cortes never thought he knew quite enough, Massaro said.
Dunn remembers the proprietor never seemed quite satisfied after playing.
"He would get up and kind of walk off like he was embarrassed or something," Dunn said. "And I just couldn't believe it because we all enjoyed it so much."
Mr. Cortes also served for years on the board of the Dalí Museum. Ulrich, who served with him, remembers a sort of parallel between Mr. Cortes' particular brand of philosophical spirituality and Salvador Dalí's.
"I think Jose saw that bit of hunger in Dalí," Ulrich said.
But Mr. Cortes' art was business.
Massaro, who ran the restaurant with her husband and parents, said her father made a study of the way the restaurant worked. "It was such a part of him," she said.
So much so that after selling the restaurant and stepping away for nine years, they reacquired it in 2003. They ran the restaurant for another eight years. After Pepin closed permanently in 2011, Massaro said her father was afraid to fade from view.
"That was the fear when we closed the restaurant, that people would forget him," Massaro said.
She now knows he was wrong to worry.
"They haven't forgotten."
Contact Katie Mettler at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kemettler.