An authentic Italian-Sicilian restaurant will soon join the Columbia Restaurant Group.
Fresh off launching the Ulele restaurant downtown, and buying the Goody Goody cheeseburger brand, Columbia patriarch Richard Gonzmart is deep into planning for an Italian-Sicilian comfort-food restaurant in a historic Ybor City building.
Through a series of holding companies, Gonzmart has purchased a site for the restaurant in what had long been known as the Ferlita Macaroni Factory building at 22nd Street and East 6th Avenue, and he’s tentatively settled on a name, Casa Santo Stefano.
Like all of Gonzmart’s other projects, this new venture has an intensely personal motivation that will drive every aspect of the “Casa” design.
“My best friend growing up lived next door, and on Sundays I would go eat at their home with their whole Italian family,” Gonzmart said. “And it was the best comfort, family food around. Sitting around their dinner table, I have such fond memories of that. We ate pasta and meats and then salads. After that, my buddy and I would end up falling asleep on the floor watching TV. It was wonderful. This will be geared to serve all the new residents that will be moving into Ybor City in the next three to five years — someplace they can walk to.”
Gonzmart bought the Macaroni Factory property, just across the back parking lot from the Columbia Restaurant, in September through a legal entity called 22nd Street Holdings, and paid $1.1 million for the parcel. Frequent Ybor land-buyer Darryl Shaw now controls the open lots surrounding the building, and Gonzmart says they have an arrangement for parking for the restaurant. Over the next several years, 22nd Street will change dramatically, Gonzmart said, as the road is essentially slowed down with curbside parking and a no-trucks rule, which he said will help revitalize the residential area nearby, making it far more comfortable for pedestrians.
As for the food, Gonzmart said it will be modeled after those recipes brought by the thousands of immigrants who came to Ybor City from Sicily, and specifically from Santo Stefano, about 40 miles south of Palermo.
Helping preserve the Italian heritage of Ybor is a huge priority for Gonzmart now. The family that lived next to Gonzmart growing up, the Guagliardos, ran a family dairy that still provides milk to the Columbia restaurants.
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Gonzmart said he’s a bit hesitant to divulge much of the menu, particularly after other restaurants “poached” some of his early ideas for the Ulele site before Ulele opened. But generally, he said, the Casa will make fresh pasta, use fresh tomatoes, fresh vegetables and Florida meats. The site likely won’t even have a freezer, he said. He’s planning an extended research trip to Sicily soon to help develop the menu and wine selection.
Gonzmart is targeting prices that are a notch or two below Ulele and the Columbia, so it’s more of a casual, day-to-day restaurant for residents.
Gonzmart has been on a roll, lately, with expansions. Last year, his Ulele restaurant opened on the Hillsborough River. The project ended up more expensive then planned, but ultimately opened up to great acclaim, and recently added lunch service.
Also, Gonzmart in October purchased the rights to the Goody Goody hamburger restaurant brand, including the recipes, logos and even the furniture for the long-loved drive-in on Florida Avenue. That original Goody Goody site has been demolished, but Gonzmart is now scouting new locations for future Goody Goody restaurants.
Building the restaurant will also give new life to a structure that’s come close to demolition before.
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Giuseppe Ferlita started his pasta business in West Tampa in 1912 and moved to the larger, 22nd Street Ybor City building in 1924. The building was sold more than 10 years later and became the Pedro Perez Cigar Co., and later served as a residence.
A roofing supply company bought the dilapidated building in 1985 with plans for a headquarters, but a partial roof collapse in 2007 led to a potential demolition.
Ybor City resident Fran Costantino and others pushed for the building to be saved, noting it was one of the few remnants of the Italian heritage of the neighborhood.
Ultimately, John and Chris Rosende spent 18 months stabilizing and restoring the property for their windows and doors company offices.
Gonzmart said it will take a year to build out the inside of the restaurant, and even if it doesn’t open right away as a public restaurant, he can use it as a remote kitchen to get operations going.
The potential Casa Santo Stefano is much further along at this point than Ulele was, Gonzmart said, but will still likely take two years to open. By that time, he said, the streetscape of the area will be transformed and become far more pedestrian- friendly, making the site much more of a walk-up restaurant for locals.