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Ybor’s iconic La Tropicana Cafe is the latest business casualty of the pandemic

The restaurant opened in 1963 and was a regular stop for politicians passing through the area.
La Tropicana Cuban Cafe is seen Tuesday in Tampa. The restaurant that opened in 1963 has closed its doors in the Ybor City of Tampa.
La Tropicana Cuban Cafe is seen Tuesday in Tampa. The restaurant that opened in 1963 has closed its doors in the Ybor City of Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 2, 2020
Updated Jun. 2, 2020

TAMPA — The Manteiga family will need to find a new restaurant from which to hold court.

Since the 1970s, the owners of La Gaceta Newspaper had a private circular table in the back corner of La Tropicana Cafe in Ybor City.

But after nearly six decades of slinging Cuban sandwiches, café con leche and other Ybor fare, La Tropicana Cafe at 1822 E. Seventh Ave. has closed.

Gio Peña, who has operated La Tropicana since 2016, said it could not survive the ongoing pandemic.

“I’d say 80 percent of my regular customers are older people,” Peña said. “They are afraid to come out.”

His other restaurant, Gio’s Cuban Cafe at 411 S. Macdill Ave., remains open.

“It is always hard to run two businesses,” he said. “It is even harder now. It was a tough decision.”

Peña said he is in discussions with restaurateurs interested in re-opening La Tropicana but cannot guarantee anything.

La Gaceta publisher Patrick Manteiga said he was heartbroken to lose a restaurant that has been a second office for his newspaper since his late-father Roland Manteiga had friend and then-owner Angel “BeBe” Menendez place that private table in the corner. It was the only circular table in the restaurant and, for decades, had its own working red phone.

“It is a piece of Ybor history gone forever," Manteiga said.

A memorial at the private La Tropicana Cafe table for Roland Manteiga when he died in 1998.
A memorial at the private La Tropicana Cafe table for Roland Manteiga when he died in 1998. [ Times (1998) ]

Frank Ippolito founded the La Tropicana in 1963 across the street from where it is today.

Menendez purchased the restaurant in 1965, moved it to the current location eight years later and installed a drive thru window.

“They had Ybor’s original drive thru that was the only one until McDonald’s and Burger King came,” La Tropicana regular and Ybor resident Fran Costantino said. “That was what made it so special. That was their claim to fame.”

That and their classic Ybor cuisine that also included black beans and rice and stuffed potatoes.

“I used to eat there every Friday with my friends Mary and Theresa Greco,” Costantino said. “We ordered their deviled crabs and café con leche every Friday for years.”

At first, the clientele was immigrants and first-generation Americans. Then, the children of those customers went on to college and became doctors, lawyers, businessmen and politicians, former owner Ray Cuttle once told the Tampa Bay Times. Even though they moved away from Ybor, he said, they kept coming back to La Tropicana, establishing the cafe’s roots as a melting pot of working classes.

For generations, La Tropicana was also a regular stop for politicians passing through the area.

President George W. Bush dined there, as did governors Lawton Chiles and Bob Martinez.

“I met President Jimmy Carter there,” said Tony Zappone, who then added with a laugh, “Carter had the worst handshake of anybody I have ever met. It was like shaking hands with toilet paper. But everybody ate there back then. It was famous."

President George W Bush greets Debbie Losurdo at the La Tropicana Cafe in Ybor City when the president made an impromptu stop to pick up Cuban sandwiches on the way to the airport following a visit to Tampa in 2004.
President George W Bush greets Debbie Losurdo at the La Tropicana Cafe in Ybor City when the president made an impromptu stop to pick up Cuban sandwiches on the way to the airport following a visit to Tampa in 2004. [ Times (2004) ]

Menendez’ son-in-law Cuttle took over around 1995 and operated the restaurant until 2016, when he sold the building to Ybor developers Jacob Buchman, Joe Capitano, Darryl Shaw and Ariel Quintela.

They then approached Peña about running the restaurant.

“It was a great opportunity,” Pena said. “We were doing good. Business was steady. And then came COVID.”

Manteiga said the La Tropicana deserved a better sendoff.

“It is very sad that it will go out with a whimper," he said, “as opposed to a roar.”

• • •

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