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At Malio's, everyone was part of family

Diane Dukart walked through the doors of Malio's Steak House with nothing more than a promise to learn fast and work hard.

That was all the qualifications Malio Iavarone needed from her. He welcomed a grateful Dukart to the staff in 1977, and Dukart, who had never been a waitress, expressed her gratitude by never leaving.

Until Saturday night.

Dukart, 59, might have worked at Malio's forever if Iavarone hadn't sold the South Dale Mabry property to a door manufacturer more interested in prime real estate than prime rib. Not only was Saturday the final night for the long-standing restaurant, but it was the last night for Dukart.

"I'll never work for anyone else, because all I know is Malio's," Dukart said. "I think the shock is going to hit me Monday. At times, I'm in tears because the place is coming down. It's like a part of your life is over."

For Dukart, it was a grand and glamorous life. Balancing trays, hustling through kitchens, appeasing customers and scraping up tips hardly seem glamorous. But you have to understand, "server" was simply a title for Dukart.

"Some of his customers come in two to three times a week," Dukart said. "I knew what they like to eat, what they like to drink. Sometimes they don't even have to ask.

"I love to pamper them and they, in return, treat me like a friend instead of server. I love to pamper the people, to cater to them."

And most of all, she loved working for Iavarone.

Mention Malio's and visions of infamy flash through your mind: Yankees owner George Steinbrenner cutting deals at his special table; Burt Reynolds courting bar manager Pam Seals; Mafia undercover agent Donnie Brasco huddling with the FBI.

The restaurant is as big a Tampa celebrity as any star, and Malio's customer care made it so. But that care went beyond the famous and passed on to the average Joes. Like ladles of tomato sauce over spaghetti, it covered everyone involved with the restaurant _ especially the employees.

Sure, most workers are going to rave about their boss to a reporter, especially on the festive last night. Dukart, however, offers the ultimate tribute with one simple fact: She let her kids work there. Angel Dukart was a hostess, then a cocktail waitress. Christopher Dukart bused tables alongside her for three years.

"That's one of the great qualities here," Dukart said. "He always cared about us and our families. Some places don't want family members working with you, but here, you had sons and daughters and cousins and nephews."

Does this family atmosphere extend to the kitchen? Ask chef Theodore Walton. Everybody calls him "Pops," except for Iavarone, who calls him son.

"It really is one big family," said Walton, 45. "Everybody gets along, everybody knows everybody."

And everybody appreciates Iavarone's generosity. Like Dukart, Walton came aboard without a lot of practical experience. Back in 1984, he switched from truck driver to chef with the simple declaration that he knew how to cook because his mom raised nine kids in Tampa.

Again, Iavarone was sold.

Christine Holloway tells a similar story. She walked out of high school and into Malio's in 1990 to be a hostess. Now she doesn't call Malio's her second home _ she calls it her first.

"He's raised me the other half of my life," said Holloway, 32. "I come to work for this man. He treats all of us like a million dollars."

At some point, maybe a customer has walked away disgruntled, an employee has quit in disgust or a salesman has been rebuffed. It's going to happen during 37 years of business.

But I can only write of what I have personally witnessed. Last year, when I wrote about Iavarone being the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's National Man of the Year during the Christmas holidays, I brought along my two sons.

Among other things, Iavarone took time out of his busy schedule to give them a ride in his Hummer H2. They're still talking about "Mr. Malio."

Million-dollar treatment? I'm not sure you can put a price tag on that kind of graciousness or on how much we'll miss this institution.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or Hoopersptimes.com.

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