How long does it take to open a new restaurant?
It depends who you ask, but for Richard Gonzmart, the answer falls somewhere between a few years and a lifetime.
On Thursday, the fourth-generation owner and patriarch of the Columbia Restaurant Group will open his latest, and perhaps most widely anticipated, restaurant, Casa Santo Stefano.
The Italian restaurant, now several years in the making, is an homage to the Sicilian immigrants who came to Tampa during the late 1800s and early 1900s. An estimated 60 percent of the Sicilians who arrived in Tampa and Ybor City came from the villages of Santo Stefano Quisquina and Alessandria della Rocca, and the concept is largely a tribute to those families and their heritage.
But the space is also a nod to Gonzmart’s own Tampa upbringing. From the salvaged artifacts and artworks that decorate the walls to the Sunday supper-like dishes that appear on the menu, every aspect of the restaurant offers a form of storytelling from the Tampa restaurateur — a way to weave memories from his past into the present.
Casa Santo Stefano took years to create, Gonzmart said, because everything had to be just right.
“My expectations for excellence are high,” he said during a recent tour of the space.
The restaurant’s opening also welcomes the revitalization of a historic Ybor City building that has been vacant for years, the Ferlita Macaroni factory. The blonde brick structure at 1607 N 22nd St. sits near the corner of E Sixth Avenue, across the street from the Columbia Restaurant’s parking lot.
Giuseppe Ferlita, who emigrated from Sicily to Tampa in 1905, started the Ferlita Macaroni Co., first drying macaroni on his back porch in West Tampa before outgrowing the space and relocating to Ybor City. The building, which dates to the early 1920s, served as the Ferlita home and business for many years, before being sold in 1946.
The building fell into neglect. At one point, all that remained of the brick facade were four walls. Trees had grown in the middle of what is now the dining room of the restaurant. In 2010, brothers John and Chris Rosende began renovating the derelict building, restoring the space for what would later become a showroom for their windows and doors business.
In 2014, Gonzmart bought the historic property. Two years later, he hired Alessio Selleri, an Italian chef who was most recently the executive chef at the Marco Beach Ocean Resort, to begin creating a menu that would embody his vision. Over the next several years, Selleri worked exclusively on the menu while plans for the restaurant were developed, which included several research trips to Italy and countless menu tastings.
Though rooted in Sicilian tradition, the menu is what Gonzmart calls “Tampa Sicilian," and many of the dishes are either an homage to Gonzmart’s childhood friendships or a nod to Italian families with ties to the area. Lele’s Stuffed Artichoke ($22), for instance, is a reference to a dish his mother, Adela Hernandez Gonzmart, used to make for his family. And Sunday suppers with his childhood best friend, Vince Palori, inspired the Spaghetti Nana Maria ($22), a hearty pasta dish made with meatballs, pork shoulder, Italian sausage and a hard-boiled egg — just like Palori’s grandmother would cook for them.
“This is all about a memory,” Gonzmart said.
The expansive dinner menu is divided into several subsections: Antipasti della Casa (appetizers), Zuppe e Insalata (soups and salads), Maccheroni (pasta), Contorni (sides), Piatti della Tradizione (traditional entrees), and Dolci e Formaggi (desserts and cheeses). A 20-foot steel grill anchors the open kitchen space, from which the likes of Mediterranean sea bass, swordfish, dry-aged pork chops and porterhouse steaks are all cooked over a smoky mix of lump charcoal and wild cherry wood.
There are plenty of hallmarks of southern Italian cuisine, including the Bucatini con le Sarde ($22), a classic pasta dish that combines white sardines with fennel, garlic, shallots and a saffron broth with tomatoes, crushed red peppers, raisins and toasted pine nuts, and topped with fried breadcrumbs. There’s also a pan-roasted Florida Grouper al Limone, basted in a butter-and-lemon caper sauce and served with grilled vegetables ($35), and the Sea Bass Grigliata, served with an eggplant caponata and grilled lemons ($34).
In any case, guests can expect plenty of products straight from Italy to land on their plate: Sicilian cheeses and extra-virgin olive oil, salt and semolina pastas (except for a select few that are made in-house), bottled water and gin. Even the restaurant’s wine list is devoted entirely to wines from Sicily, displayed in a glass-encased mezzanine wine room high above the main dining area (“When you’re eating Sicilian, you’ve got to drink Sicilian,” Gonzmart said).
Throughout the roughly 2,700-square-foot downstairs space, several enlarged photos of Santo Stefano Quisquina decorate the dining room, including a mural image of a World War I monument in the village that includes the names of several well-known Sicilian families who migrated to Ybor City. Lighting fixtures emulate long, wiry strands of spaghetti and leather booths hug the corners of the dining room, which right now includes seating for roughly 150 people.
Ceramic countertops in the kitchen and bar are all made from volcanic rock and meals are served in hand-painted plates and dishes. The kitchen tiles are heated, eliminating the need for overhead broilers to keep dishes warm before they are sent out to the dining room. And the kitchen itself is wide open, and includes a long countertop where guests can sit in on the action.
With coronavirus cases on the rise once again throughout the Tampa Bay area, the restaurant’s opening includes safety protocols including increased distancing between tables and masked employees. Guests are also asked to wear their masks anytime they are not seated at a table.
Once open, the upstairs bar and lounge will include a large terrace with patio seating. But for now, there is no outdoor seating at the restaurant.
The restaurant’s final touches, including an edible garden, a separate and adjacent private dining space and the rooftop cocktail bar, will open at a later date.
It’s a “beautiful work in progress,” Gonzmart said. But for the most part, Casa Santo Stefano is finally ready to welcome diners. Starting Nov. 19, it will be open daily for dinner from 4 to 10 p.m.