ST. PETERSBURG — Steve Bonfili liked his El Cap burger with onion, mustard and a Pabst Blue Ribbon — the beer only when off the clock.
He kept the outside of El Cap nice and clean. He'd come early to sweep away trash, even when customers teased him. He swept, even years after he'd handed the place down to his son, Frank.
He didn't like dramatics. As he ailed with pneumonia, he made his wife promise that there would be no elaborate celebrations of life or cloying elegies.
He died May 20 at age 91. His family had a quick viewing and a simple Catholic Mass. His funeral notice in the newspaper didn't even mention El Cap, the St. Petersburg hamburger institution he operated for 17 years.
It was like his burger. Unfussy.
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He was born in Pennsylvania, where he played football and baseball and rooted for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He thought he'd never leave.
He ran a bar and restaurant with his wife, Rose. They sold little sandwiches, beer, wine, liquor. Then, the economy took a dive. Business got bad.
Mr. Bonfili's half brother, Augie Donatelli, was a well-known Major League Baseball umpire working spring training games in St. Petersburg. He wrote Mr. Bonfili a letter about a business opportunity in town: a nice place where a lot of baseball people go.
They moved down in 1963 and bought El Cap. They didn't renovate or invent fancy new foods. They liked El Cap's simplicity, its small charm.
They served big league ballplayers, umpires and Little Leaguers. Mr. Bonfili chatted up customers with baseball trivia while his wife piled ham high on rye bread in the kitchen.
"People were nice and friendly," said Rose Bonfili, 86. "People liked us, which was very lucky. We made a lot friends, and the business just kept booming."
They started work at 9 a.m. and quit at 11 p.m. or later. They closed on Sundays. They had only one waitress.
Mr. Bonfili got a daily two-hour break from ground beef and buns. He'd go home to eat the dinner that his wife had prepared for him. His favorite was her spaghetti.
The couple had two children, Alida and Frank, who died of a heart attack more than 10 years ago at age 46. Frank's wife, Mary Jean, still operates El Cap.
Mr. Bonfili told his children that bartending was back-breaking work. He didn't put them through college to serve beer.
But in 1980, Mr. Bonfili was ready to retire. His son asked to take over El Cap.
Despite his well-meant advice otherwise, Mr. Bonfili was happy to hear it.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached
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