ST. PETERSBURG — The Basta family, synonymous with a long-running restaurant on Fourth Street S, had planned a trip to Italy. They would visit relatives in the Calabria region, across a narrow strait from Sicily.
No one looked forward to the journey than Mario Basta, who ran Basta's Ristorante for the past several years. His father Francisco, who founded the restaurant 20 years ago, died of cancer in June, a month after the restaurant closed its doors.
Mario Basta resumed his studies at the University of South Florida, where he was close to graduating with a degree in history. Perhaps he would go into teaching.
Despite the loss of his father and the family restaurant, Mr. Basta was psyched about the next phase of his life — especially the trip this summer.
"All he talked about was the trip," said his mother, MaryEllen Basta.
Mr. Basta grew up in the restaurant business and had worked in Basta's since his father opened it in 1989 at 1625 Fourth St. S. He could run every part of the restaurant, from busing tables to running the waiters to preparing the cuisine, which was highly rated among food critics.
With his flashing brown eyes, easy manner and a Pepsodent smile, Mr. Basta also had the temperament to weather a restaurant's chaos.
"He could have a customer yell at him, and he would just stand there and smile," said Francine Brown, a family friend.
He prepared an unmatched Caesar salad at table side, right down to making the dressing. He enjoyed chatting with seniors and posing for photos in his tuxedo with regular customers like baseball manager Joe Torre or broadcaster Dick Vitale, standing in front of a mural of San Remo.
In January, Mr. Basta seemed to need more sleep. He began missing work at 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House, his family said. Doctors at St. Anthony's Hospital could find nothing wrong.
About three weeks ago, Mr. Basta moved back to his mother's house in Coquina Key. On Feb. 22, MaryEllen Basta tried to wake her son for dinner and found him unresponsive. Authorities found that he had died, apparently in his sleep, Italian language tapes by his bedside. He was 31. The Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner's Office is conducting an autopsy.
"We have to lean on each other," said sister Lisa Basta, 28. "It's not going to change the hurt, but we do it."
His family will take that trip to Italy this summer. They also plan to celebrate every year on March 1, Mr. Basta's birthday.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.