ST. PETERSBURG — Friends were skeptical in 1989 when Francisco Basta opened Basta's Ristorante.
With no retail to speak of nearby, the location at 1625 Fourth St. S seemed more like one to pass by rather than a destination.
Some of his acquaintances even questioned his choice of location in a predominantly black neighborhood.
"A lot of people said, 'Why would you want to open up over there?' " said his wife, MaryEllen Basta, 56. "But we didn't care because we're not like that."
The restaurant stayed open for more than 20 years, at times winning awards such as the "Golden Spoon" and top ratings in the Mobil Travel Guide. Joe Torre and Mike Alstott were regulars. So were Dick Vitale and Bette Midler.
Locals knew the restaurant, too, including many who couldn't afford to eat there. Mr. Basta consistently gave out gift certificates for band boosters and other school-related organizations. He gave food, and jobs, to down-and-out men and women who trickled from the nearby Salvation Army.
Mr. Basta turned the business over to his son, Mario, about five years ago. It closed last month due to Mr. Basta's deteriorating health.
Mr. Basta died June 17 of liver cancer. He was 58.
For him, cooking was everything. He created, calling himself a "wizard in the kitchen." He served veal with peppers and onions. He flavored salmon with vodka, brandy and cream.
He preferred a lighter cuisine than some Italian restaurants offer. No MSG. "You feel better after you're done eating," Mario Basta said.
Customers at Basta's often had a hard time leaving. Waiters swirled around them like honey bees, carrying bread and wine and questions about their welfare.
"He was pretty strict about wanting the customers to feel well," said Mario Basta, 31.
He wanted them to feel at home. Home, for him, was Mandatoriccio, Italy. Mr. Basta moved to the United States at 13 and lived in West Orange, N.J. He ran a restaurant with his father before coming to St. Petersburg in the late 1980s and opening Basta's.
Businesses on Fourth Street S were considered risky investments by some. Long-standing institutions like the Fourth Street ferry boat and the Wedgewood Inn were gone. Crack was gaining a foothold. Mr. Basta wasn't worried.
"It (the location) has to be very good for business," he told the Times in 1989. "People come here from all over because it's convenient. There's a sign on the interstate that says, 'Fourth St.' You get off and, boom, you're here."
When not at the restaurant, Mr. Basta enjoyed relaxing with his family. He liked out-of-the-way spots on the beach, walks in Vinoy Park, Starbucks and going to the movies, his family said.
Basta's will reopen sometime in 2010, his son said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.