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Alessi family marks 100 years of sweet life

TAMPA - Phil Alessi Sr. remembers everything. And the memories are as sugar-coated and sweet as his pastries. When you spend 67 years baking for a city, you accumulate anecdotes like trophies. Remembering one name begets another. Saying the name Steinbrenner triggers Schwarzkopf, which leads to Joe Frazier and Sammy Davis Jr.
The Alessi family's story is interwoven with that of Tampa. For 100 years, the family has been baking bread and pastries. Their collection of tiramisu, petit fours and cream puffs now extends across Florida and the United States. But for all the success and influence Phil Alessi Sr. has had in Tampa, it is the four generations of family tradition that keep him going. Every day seems to bring a new tale to tell. "Anyone who has grown up in an Italian family knows that it's a different kind of thing," he says. There's the story about how he started. After a detour through Jacksonville, the family first landed in Tampa in 1912 after Alessi's grandfather, Nicola, moved from Italy. After starting a small bakery on Cherry Street in Tampa, he later moved it to Howard Avenue. Nicola's son John eventually took the reins as cousins and relatives joined to work as employees. As early as six years old, Phil Alessi was shining shoes in front of the Howard Avenue bakery. Even in first grade, there was money to be made. That year, many of the unionized Cuban bakers in town went on strike. There was bread to bake. On Sundays, the line of customers extended out the door and down the block. No bread, no customers. So his father, John, put young Phil to work. "He took me in the back and had me putting palmettos on the Cuban bread," Alessi remembers, citing the technique for splitting each loaf. "I was really upset because I was making 30 cents an hour doing that and I was making $20 to $30 a day shining shoes." He learned at the elbow of his father, traveling across the country with him to conventions to gather ideas and meet other bakers during the dark hours of the night when bread gets made. Back home, he would beg his mother to let him stay with the night crew. By age eight, Phil was learning how to make specialty cakes. During the week, he would prepare all of his ingredients so that on Saturday and Sunday mornings, he could learn from his father. "I did that for years," he says. "That's what created a lot of curiosity for me. And I just loved it." That curiosity fueled his imagination and spurred his creativity. He remembers his first creation, a seven-inch lime-flavored layer cake with lime icing and lime filling. "It was beautiful," he says. "I put it out there and the people who bought it just brought it back because it overwhelmed them with lime." He caught hell from an uncle. It made an impression. "I never wanted to embarrass my dad, so I paid attention from that day on and made sure I went to my dad to make sure I was doing it right," he says. "Then I became pretty good at it." There's the story about how he came to run the bakery. In the early 1960s, Alessi became frustrated by how the bakery was run. His cousins were resistant to change. Every new idea was shot down. No one wanted to extend the bakery's hours. He went to his father and told him he wanted to start his own bakery. His father was so supportive, he supplied the seed money for him to start Phil's Bakery at age 17. The bakery was such a success that he soon bought The Cake Box bakery across town. Two stores became five. Under his own steam and with his own business ideas, he flourished. Years later, when his father became ill and unable to run the family bakery, Phil bought out the family baking business, closed his other stores and formed a corporation that grew into the Alessi Bakery that is now on Cypress Street. In the early 1990s, Alessi saw that his industry was changing. Grocery chains were installing in-store bakeries and squeezing out independents. Mom-and-pop stores were closing. "I thought, 'Why don't we join them?'" Alessi says. He approached Publix about the idea of producing pastries for them. It took three years of pestering before they asked if Alessi could make Christmas pastries. At the time Publix had about 600 stores. "They asked if we could handle the demand," he says. "I said, 'We have a can-do attitude in our organization. We can do it.' Truth was, I didn't know if we could do it or not.'' Alessi started producing the outsourced pastries at the Cypress Avenue store, then moved into a 30,000-square-foot facility in Drew Park. Eventually, they outgrew that one, too. Alessi bakeries now operate a 100,000-square-foot plant off Waters Avenue and ships products all over the country to several groceries. He can still vividly recall the beautiful wedding cakes his father made, and how his father was never satisfied. "He always tried to improve everything he did," Alessi says. "I'd say, "Dad, why do you want to change that? It's beautiful!' He'd say, 'We can make it better.'" There's the story about fishing. Lots of stories, actually. As a boy, Alessi was taught to fish by his father. During summers spent with his family on Clearwater Beach, he would catch pinfish on a five-hook line and sell them to fishing guides for a $1 per dozen as bait. Some weeks, he made as much as $500. That turned into a lifelong love of fishing. As an adult, he bought a boat and invited friends and business associates to go fishing; people like his childhood friend, Dick Greco, who would one day be mayor of Tampa and whose family owned a hardware store for five decades. For years, Greco, Alessi and Tampa Tribune sports columnist Tom McEwen had a standing date on Mondays to go fishing, inviting Tampa's movers and shakers to go along. People like Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. The first time Steinbrenner ever went fishing was on Alessi's boat, Greco says. It didn't take long for his true nature to show. The fishing guide hired for the day cast the rod the first two times. After that, Steinbrenner took over. At the end of the day, he bragged about not only catching the most fish that day but also the biggest fish. A photo from that day hangs on the wood paneling of Alessi's office, across the room from a glass-encased shovel mounted on a baseball bat. Steinbrenner sent it to him after it was used to break ground on the new Yankee Stadium. "George had a profound influence on me," Alessi says. "He taught me a lot about being involved in the community." And although business associates were invited, business rarely was discussed, says Bob Basham, co-founder of the Outback Steakhouse chain and occasional Alessi fishing guest. Alessi became a mentor as Outback grew and as Basham started his PDQ chicken tenders restaurant chain. "You learn a lot about someone from being on a boat with them," Basham says. "He's a fun guy. Good sense of humor. "When I first moved here, one of my goals was to be included in those fishing trips I read about in Tom's 'Morning After' column," Basham says. "Phil invited me, Tom wrote about it and I got to cross it off my list." There's the story about how he got into boxing. Growing up in Tampa, Alessi would go with his father during the 1950s to watch closed-circuit showings of Rocky Marciano fights at the Ritz Theater on Kennedy Boulevard. They also would go to the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory on Howard Avenue to watch bouts. One day in 1967, he approached Tampa boxing manager and promoter Lou Viscusi about becoming a promoter. Viscusi, who was tired of how slow Tampa's boxing scene had become, took the young Alessi under his wing and taught him the business. "Lou told me that I needed to smoke cigars, so I started smoking cigars," he says. "The house started to smell like cigars, so I said, 'If this is what it takes, then I quit.'" Eventually, Alessi formed Alessi Productions, going on to promote more than 300 fight cards and two dozen championship fights in Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Chicago and London, as well as in Tampa. Alessi said he loves boxing's "cast of characters," including men like Yank Durham, who once trained heavyweight champ Joe Frazier, which leads to another story. Seems that Yank was president of the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation. Entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. was a co-chairman. Yank introduced Sammy to Phil. Sammy helped Phil promote entertainers. In 1973, when baseball player Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's career record of 714 home runs, Alessi offered the person who caught the record-breaking ball $25,000. "Sammy offered him $40,000 and he got the ball," Alessi says. In 2010, Alessi was inducted into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame, along with Viscusi, Muhammad Ali and Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee. "Angie came to see me when I was in the hospital," Alessi says. "He signed that boxing glove on the wall up there for me." There's the story about when Phil got sick. About 12 years ago, Alessi underwent a heart bypass operation. That later triggered a stroke. The stroke affected his kidneys. Now Alessi goes for dialysis three times a week. Not that it has slowed him much. He commands the retail shop from behind his desk, where he sits in a motorized scooter that he operates with a joystick. In front of him, two large monitors give him dozens of views by camera of the bakery as well as the Waters Avenue production facility. Son Phil Jr. is now in charge of the family business, but Alessi stays involved in day-to-day operations and new product development. Linda, his genteel wife of 22 years, says that not once has she noticed any sense of self-pity or change in moods. His body may have taken a hit, but his mind is clear and positive. As much as she is his caretaker, he is hers as well, she says. "He goes to physical therapy and I know that he's hurting, but he never shows it," she says. "He never says anything." He remains, she says, as consumed by the passion for business as he ever was. Say the word "schiacciata" to him, and he'll launch into an energetic spiel about how the sauce-covered pastry recipe was brought over by his grandfather from Italy, where he had a bakery a couple blocks away from the Vatican. About how people love it. About how next season, they're going to sell it at Raymond James Stadium during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' home games. "Just met the new coach the other day," Alessi says. "Nice guy." Linda jokes about how the bakery is "the other woman" in their relationship. "Actually, I might be the 'other woman.'" she says. "He wakes up and the first thing he does is start writing ideas down he had while he slept." Is he a little obsessed? Not according to him. "I've never looked at this as work for my entire life," he says. "If you love what you're doing, it's not work. It never is, even though I'm handicapped a little bit. "The bottom line is I still look forward to coming in to see how they did everything the night before."

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