TAMPA — In its heyday during the 1950s and '60s, the Tropics Steak House kicked most of its restaurant competition to the curb. Anxious teenagers in rented tuxedos, couples out to celebrate and politicians with unfinished business all waited to be seated in a foyer lined with black and gold tile that conveyed understated class.
A tiny, well-dressed woman stood on her toes to give her favorite guests a peck on the cheek. Mary Provenzano (then Mary LaBarbera), who owned the Tropics, had lots of favorites.
"Everybody in the social world was there," said her son, lawyer Michael LaBarbera. "And I'm not bragging, it's just a fact."
Mrs. Provenzano would sell the restaurant at 301 S Dale Mabry Highway to Malio Iavarone, who would eventually double the size of the restaurant he renamed Malio's and multiply its profits.
Mrs. Provenzano, once the engine of a dining experience that knitted communities together, died Dec. 10 of leukemia. She was 91.
"You walk in the door and she would come give you a kiss," said former Mayor Dick Greco. "Two or three waiters would come up and ask you about your mother and your dad. You would sit next to people you knew."
She grew up in Ybor City, where the restaurants Las Novidades and Spanish Park also drew crowds of people who expected to see each other. Same with Valencia Garden on W Kennedy Boulevard, which had been around since 1927.
"Valencia Garden became more Anglo," said Greco, 76. "Later on, Tropics did too. She was one of the first to start something in the South Tampa area. (The Tropics) was a continuation of those places where people knew each other."
The vision that grew into the Tropics and Malio's began in 1944 as Gator Food Store, a small grocery at Dale Mabry Highway and Kennedy Boulevard. In the early 1950s Mrs. Provenzano and her husband, Michael, bought adjacent property, bulldozed the grocery and built the Tropics Steak House, serving aged steaks — and notice on Bern's Steak House that a new player was in town.
"It was a place you would go only for special occasions," said Tobea Paskert, a former daughter-in-law. "It was the place to go in Tampa in the '50s and '60s."
The couple expanded the restaurant halfway to Platt Street, and stayed in business together after their divorce. But it was Mrs. Provenzano who managed and controlled the restaurant.
"She worked 70, 80, 100 hours a week," said the younger Michael LaBarbera, 63. "She watched the front door, the back door and the customers."
Mrs. Provenzano bought out the elder LaBarbera's interest and became president of the Tampa Restaurant Association.
In 1969 she married Al Paskert, a successful food broker, and decided to sell the restaurant.
Enter Malio Iavarone, a fresh-faced 25-year-old from a family of Tampa restaurateurs who wanted to buy the place. The phone conversation went well. Then they met.
"She looked at me and said, 'Son, I thought you were much older,' " Iavarone, 66, recalled. "She said, 'I'm scared for you.' "
"I said, 'Watch me work.' "
Iavarone bought the business and equipment in 1970, but Mrs. Provenzano retained the property. She pointed out gangsters and told him to keep his head on a swivel.
"She'd say, 'Watch this guy, watch that guy.' I said, 'Mary, you're going to scare me half to death with that.' "
But when his workers covered the marble entryway tile with wood shingles for a more rustic look, the former owner hit the ceiling.
"She said, 'Oh my god, what are you doing?' " Iavarone said. "I said, 'This is a modern thing.' " But she also played a key role in smoothing relations with anxious kitchen staff, most of whom were retained by the new management.
A few years later she sold Iavarone the property, offering him long-term financing. "Without her, I probably couldn't nave done it," Iavarone said.
Over the next 35 years, Malio's became a multimillion-dollar business with customers like Burt Reynolds, George Steinbrenner, John Travolta and Michael Jordan.
Mrs. Provenzano had retired in her early 50s. She spent time with her real estate businesses and civic organizations such as the Krewe of Venus. She sewed expert float decorations for the Gasparilla Parade.
Al Paskert died in 1987. In 1994, she married Tony Provenzano, who died in 2007.
Mrs. Provenzano won a statewide art contest with her painting. At 90, living alone at University Village, she held her first show.
Three days before she died, Mrs. Provenzano told Tobea Paskert she had "no regrets, because there isn't anything in my life I haven't done."
Malio's Steak House closed its doors in 2005, originally to be sold to Masonite International Corp. Now a Lifestyles Fitness Center will likely occupy the vacant site, Iavarone said.
Today, there are few if any iconic restaurants, Greco lamented. Like Valencia Garden, which closed this year, the Tropics and Malio's have faded into Tampa's past.
"You see bits and pieces of it, but nothing of what those two places were," Greco said. "Little by little, it is disappearing."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]