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  1. St. Petersburg

Epilogue: Mary Jean Bonfili, owner who upheld El Cap's throwback charm, dead at 66

Flowers sit on the bar at El Cap restaurant in memory of the owner, Mary Jean Bonfili, on Thursday in St. Petersburg. Bonfili died on Tuesday. (ALLIE GOULDING | Times)
Published May 30

ST. PETERSBURG — Sometimes El Cap stopped serving tomatoes.

A few customers would complain. They were missing the point.

Mary Jean Bonfili, longtime owner of the landmark neighborhood bar, always bought tomatoes from the same farm in Ruskin. If prices soared during a difficult season, she would go without. Never mind there was a grocery store stocked with produce three blocks away. Bonfili would not bend.

That spirit, more than food or beer, gave El Cap its reputation. As splashy condominiums and fast-casual restaurants sprouted across the city, Bonfili kept her business a proud relic. El Cap cultivated charm by refusing to adapt. Its curt warmth might even feel rude if you only planned to visit once.

Bonfili ran the place with her husband, Frank, and then alone for two decades after his death. She died at home Tuesday from cancer, but friends and family did not know her exact illness. She was 66.

"She just didn't change anything," said manager Tara Mattiacci, 46. "Except for the prices."

Mattiacci began working at El Cap in 2001, after she asked Bonfili, a family friend, for a job at lunch. A bartender handed her a check pad that night, and told her the menu was on the wall. No further training.

The food has almost never changed. The paper menu still boasts: "HAMBURGERS OUR SPECIALTY!" Lettuce, tomato, mayo, pickles, cheese if desired. "NO SEPARATE CHECKS - NO FREE REFILLS."

But in the past 10 years, Bonfili made some adjustments. She started attending food shows, Mattiacci said, adding mac and cheese and broccoli bites as appetizers. She let loose on beer, allowing pint glasses rather than just 8.5-ounce hourglass cups.

She kept buying meat from the same outfit, just like tomatoes, and made sure it was never frozen.

Bobby Ballew, 69, a regular, said Bonfili and her friends enjoyed the added perk of free parking at the meat supplier near Tropicana Field for Rays games.

He and his wife, Deb, 67, visited El Cap almost daily for years. They hunkered down at a house with Bonfili when Hurricane Charley was headed toward Tampa Bay. That night, after the storm turned south, they went to El Cap and turned on the sign. The bar filled with people.

"I think they were all looking for McDonald's, and they found the El Cap," Ballew said.

Bonfili loved horses and kept some at a stable in Pinellas Park, for racing and show. She preferred fast, black cars like her Corvette and Mercedes. She ordered clothes, pet supplies and makeup from QVC, stacking boxes in her garage near Shore Acres.

She never went out without makeup, said Cindy Nally, another friend and manager at El Cap. She even wore lipstick in the hospital, said her aunt, Milly Columbus Price, 85. At work, she donned wigs, cycling through colors.

Bonfili was last at El Cap in January, her friends and family said, after which she handled the business from home. She remained sharp about her work.

"You never came in here and got a free beer," Columbus Price said. "It was her business."

She and Frank took over El Cap nearly 40 years ago from his parents, who bought the bar in 1963. Bonfili, who grew up in St. Petersburg, had worked as a salesperson for Xerox. Soon she was the day cook, flipping burgers made with the same recipe as her in-laws. Frank tended bar. When he died in 1997, Bonfili moved out front.

"She made the El Cap her family," Columbus Price said, recalling how she loved her customers and staff. "She had nobody else." Her parents and brothers were dead, and she and her husband did not have children.

Bonfili could be stubborn and tried to keep the bar exactly as she and Frank had designed it. Yellow newspaper clippings, baseball prints and horse racing photos fill the wood and brick walls. The chairs are made of curved metal and thin vinyl. Bonfili's old office is a closet, stacked with papers. There is no computer.

She generally did not eat — or drink — until the place closed. She liked daily specials — chicken salad, meatballs with a heap of salt — and Michelob Ultra.

Bobby Ballew realized Thursday was the first time in decades he visited El Cap without the Bonfilis.

"I guess I don't know who owns the place," he said. Mattiacci and Nally said they will keep running it, the same, just as Bonfili would want.

During lunch, a high schooler dirty from baseball practice walked in with his father to eat. Baseball, softball and golf played on the TVs.

A bouquet of white flowers sat atop the bar.

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

Mary Jean Bonfili

Born: Oct. 29, 1952.

Died: May 28, 2019.

Survivors: Aunt, Milly Columbus Price, and her El Cap family.

Services: Public memorial at El Cap (3500 Fourth St N, St. Petersburg), Sunday, June 9, 2-6 p.m.; Internment at Calvary Catholic Cemetery, Clearwater.

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