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Tampa Airport director Joe Lopano dishes on Havana plans and his world-famous meatballs

TAMPA

Known for his energy and focus on luring international flights, Joe Lopano took over as head of Tampa International Airport a year ago this month.

Under Lopano's watch, TIA has added nonstop service to Zurich and relaunched direct flights to Cuba. Meanwhile, the 57-year-old is steadily learning about the pleasures of Tampa Bay — as well as the convenience of getting his hair cut at the airport's barber shop.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Elisabeth Parker recently caught up with him to chat about his favorite parts of Tampa and some of his traditions.

Before you came to Tampa, you were vice president of marketing at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Before that?

I've had some other interesting jobs. My first job was grocery delivery for a butcher shop, just north of New York City. I'd carry groceries home for ladies, up the stairs of buildings with no elevators.

I was a caddy at a golf course, a stock boy at a grocery store, a bartender. I worked in a liquor store, drove a cab and was a volunteer fireman. When I was in college, I had my own business. I was what was known as a stringer. Newspapers would call me to take photographs. Most of the time I would take pictures of fires or plane crashes and sell them to, for example, the New York Daily News in Manhattan.

What are your favorite destinations?

Mostly European. Spain, France, Italy. My wife, Janet, and I love London. We always loved the Caribbean and beaches, but now that we live in Tampa, we've satisfied that. We love to go to Italy and have been a number of times. We love Tuscany and the old medieval city of Lucca, a really cool place.

Have you been to Cuba?

I have not been to Cuba. I'm hoping to go sometime early this year to meet with airport officials in Havana and create a relationship.

What has surprised you about the Tampa area?

Two big things stick out. I knew it was a pretty nice area. I didn't realize how really beautiful it is here, how close we are to some of the beaches and the spectacular wildlife. I do landscape and nature photography (as a hobby). I guess that's part of the reason I'm so stricken by the beauty here. The other: The people here really love this airport.

Yes, some do. I was on the top deck of the parking garage to pick up my son last night. It was sunset; the view was beautiful. Have you heard that?

One of the first things I did when I came here was to take a group of about 12 people below the rank of director, basically workers. I asked them to generate ideas for new revenue. They came up with about 85 ideas. One of them was that the best view of a sunset in Tampa is from the top deck of the parking garage. "Let's put a tiki bar up there" — I thought it sounded like a good idea. And although it's not in the works, it's not off the table either.

So, you say you can trace your roots to Italy?

My father's father came from Italy, arriving in about 1910 or so. He got married based on a picture of my grandmother. She had come to America and was staying with relatives. He was in Italy. She sent a picture back and he said, "Okay, I'll come." Problem was, they didn't realize my grandmother was quite a bit taller than my grandfather. When he got here they were quite a bit surprised.

My mom is Irish. In those days, for an Italian guy to marry an Irish girl was kind of pushing the limits. He was a college professor at Niagara University and that's where they met. She's from Niagara Falls.

Have you found any good Italian restaurants or delis here?

There's a fair number of people here of Italian descent from New York. We've been exploring all the Italian delis. I like Mazzaro's (Italian Market). They have everything I need right there. I can make a mean marinara. I use a special recipe for that. My meatballs are world-famous.

How did you meet your wife?

I met Janet in an Italian restaurant in New York owned by her father. She was the waitress. I asked the bartender who she was. We started dating.

We've been married 34 years and have three children, all in college.

People have commented on your hip glasses. Tell me about them.

They're kind of thick on the sides with black arms. When I first got them, I came off oval tortoise shell glasses to these, and the day after I got them I was in a meeting in Dallas when a guy said to me, "What are those, safety glasses?"

I guess they do kind of look like welding glasses.

What do you enjoy doing here outside of the airport?

We like to kayak. Particularly Honeymoon Island on over to Caladesi Island. That's a pretty spectacular place. I'm looking on Craigslist for a kayak. Every morning, I walk 2 miles. We live on Harbor Island so I walk either along Garrison Channel on Davis Islands down to Peter O. Knight Airport or along the channel by the convention center, then I run the convention center steps, up and down, by the cruise ships and back around.

This is the first time we ever lived downtown. We always lived in the suburbs. We tried a high-rise downtown, but I like having more room to walk around. We're looking at places on the water. We talk about having a boat.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

Tampa Airport director Joe Lopano dishes on Havana plans and his world-famous meatballs 01/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, January 21, 2012 3:30am]
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