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Bay area menus rich with ethnic flavor

When the mood strikes Tampa Bay diners to go out for something different, their first choices are usually pasta, egg rolls and tacos, the foreign foods that have become All-American favorites. For ethnic foods, Italian, Chinese and Mexican cuisines were the preferences of more than two-thirds of the 1,800 diners questioned by Suncoast Opinion Surveys for the St. Petersburg Times.

Slightly more than one-quarter of all those questioned said they had no favorite ethnic food. But for most people, ethnic foods are a regular part of their diet.

Most of these cuisines were brought to America by immigrants, and the menu grows with each new wave of immigration. Historically, these restaurants provided familiar food for their countrymen _ and economic opportunities for newcomers who turned entrepreneurs. What made them successful was that they provided Americans of other heritages with inexpensive meals, healthful choices and exotic taste.

Italian food, introduced through the Northeast more than 100 years ago, is the most popular in Tampa Bay. It was the choice of 27 percent of the respondents. Another 26 percent picked Chinese, and 15 percent chose Mexican.

Lesser favorites, each named by at least 50 respondents, were (in order of preference): Spanish, Japanese, German and French. Other cuisines relatively new to the bay area, such as English, Thai and sushi, received less mention, although the number of restaurants serving those foods appear to be growing.

Tampa Bay's taste for Italian and other foreign foods parallels overall American trends found by University of Pennsylvania geographer Wilbur Zelinsky, who scoured the Yellow Pages in 271 cities in 1986.

He found the same three cuisines to be the most popular. Chinese restaurants were most common across the country, with Ialian and Mexican restaurants strong regional favorites, according to an article in American Demographics.

On his map, Italian restaurants were the leading ethnic food in a broad section of the Northeast and in Central and South Florida, where Zelinsky thought migrating Northerners had taken their taste for Italian. Mexican restaurants were most numerous in the Southwest, but he predicted chains would soon carry Mexican flavor far north of the border and east of the Mississippi. They indeed have.

While the greatest ethnic food variety is found in larger metropolitan areas, Tampa Bay has 40 cuisines on its menu. Diners today may favor the three most popular foreign cuisines, but there's more out there to try.