Sicilian-inspired restaurant in Ybor City nears opening date

Nelson Construction has completed the transformation of the 95-year-old Ferlita Macaroni Co. factory into Richard Gonzmart’s newest creation, Casa Santo Stefano, and the first menu tasting is now in the rear-view mirror, with Nana-inspired entrees and sides getting kudos from their first audience.

Friday, November 20, is the opening date for the Sicilian-inspired restaurant.

Gonzmart, president and 4th-generation caretaker of the Columbia Restaurant Group, says the Sicilians never got their historic due in Ybor City for the history they brought here, starting with their migration into this area between 1890 and 1920. 

Gonzmart says he was inspired to open Casa Santo Stefano by the meals he enjoyed on Sundays while growing up, visiting the home of his best friend, Vincent Palori.

About 60% of Sicilian immigrants to Tampa came from Casa Santo Stefano in Italy.

Located at 1607 N. 22nd Street, just south of 7th Avenue, Casa Santo Stefano features a copper hood over the cooking area created by Dominic Martinez of Rustic Steel Creations, who also created the doors at Gonzmart’s Ulele restaurant on the edge of downtown Tampa. And Andrew Watson, who created the tabletops at Ulele also has created some of the tabletops at the new restaurant. Ben Colon, of The PKI Group installed the kitchen and the refrigeration. SSA created the custom kitchen design.

The restaurant also features a set of stained-glass windows created by local artist Joe Testa-Secca for Jesuit High School’s St. Anthony’s Chapel. Gonzmart, a Jesuit alum and major donor to the school, was given the windows when the chapel was replaced two years ago.

The upstairs at Casa Santo Stefano will be known as the Drinkeria, a bar that features a smaller menu than the downstairs dining area and a massive outside terrace that can be opened up when the weather is nice, or closed off for private outside parties. There is a hand-painted volcanic rock bar top and every spot in the place has been meticulously designed, a company representative says.

The building the restaurant will occupy has a long, colorful history, much like Ybor City, where it is located. So, for many, it just seems appropriate that a modern new restaurant with an edgy, but old-school menu would take up residence inside the historic structure.

The Ferlita Macaroni Co. was founded in 1912 by Giuseppe Rosario Ferlita, an immigrant from the same Sicilian town the restaurant is named for, according to the family history. He started out making his macaroni from home, drying the pasta on the back porch, then eventually moved into the building on 22nd Street.

Fast forward and the building was purchased in 1985, but already in bad shape, it deteriorated further and became a squatter’s haven for the homeless, says Ybor City neighbor and preservationist Fran Costantino. For 20 years, she fought with the City of Tampa code enforcement about the old factory’s condition. Meanwhile, the building’s owner, Les Thompson, applied for and received a demolition permit.

Costantino went to the Barrio Latino Commission to save the building from the wrecking ball. The Barrio is responsible for the historic fabric of Ybor City. Working with Giuseppe’s grandson, Ken Ferlita, Costantino was successful in saving the building, which was down to just four walls by then. “And look at her today,” she says.
 
And who knows, there may be macaroni on the new menu.

The menu for Casa Santo Stefano has not been finalized but will feature Nana-inspired dishes such as a Bolognese blend of pork, beef and veal, braised in wine and stock, plum tomatoes, garlic, celery and carrots, served with tomato sauce and Grana Padano cheese. Another dish under consideration is one containing white sardines, fennel, garlic, shallots and saffron broth, sautéed onions, along with crushed red peppers, raisins, toasted pine nuts, and fried breadcrumbs.

In a Facebook post over the summer, Gonzmart made it clear he is not rushing to open. “Day by day, we get a bit closer to celebrating Ybor City's Sicilian heritage at the table. When will Casa Santo Stefano open? When it is ready," he says. "Thank you for your patience.”

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Read more articles by Yvette C. Hammett.

Yvette C. Hammett, a native Floridian and a graduate of the University of Florida, has spent much of her career as a professional journalist covering business, the environment, and local features throughout the Tampa Bay Area. She is an avid camper and outdoors person who has also been involved in local events for foster children and the elderly.
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