This story was originally published in July of 2014. Updated July 12, 2018
It’s not easy being the first. If things go wrong, people always want to know “Who started this?” or “Whose idea was this?”
Fortunately for Carmine Iavarone, the question of who brought nightlife to Ybor City is one he’s more than willing to answer and take credit for. Today he’s the owner of one of the most established restaurants in the notorious neighborhood. But in the 80s, Carmine had a new vision for the industrial park that once housed thousands of day laborers. But it was actually a cafeteria at 2nd Avenue and 19th Street that helped launch the 20-year-old Carmine into the restaurant business. It wasn’t the first time Tampa fed on the hard work of the Iavarone family.
In 1945, Carmine’s grandparents, Carmine and Frances, opened an Italian/pizza place at Highland Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, then named Buffalo Avenue. For 16 years, they served Tampa its first slices of pizza, says Carmine.
His father, Eugene, twin uncles Carmine and Malio and aunt Teresa ran the restaurant until selling it in the ‘60s. But little Carmine kept the name going when he bought the Seaborg Cafeteria in Ybor in 1981, just two years after he graduated from Tampa Catholic.
“We were a blue collar place that serviced the Port of Tampa, the cigar industry and box factory workers,” says Carmine. “We had a breakfast for 99 cents that was two eggs, potatoes or grits and Cuban toast. We did that for about four to five years.”
What Carmine saw of Ybor City, though, was more than cigar factories and cheap breakfast specials. He admired the structure of Seventh Avenue and envisioned an atmosphere where patrons could walk from restaurants to venues and to shops and bars, much like New Orleans and Key West, two places he really enjoyed. At the time, only the Columbia served dinner in Ybor City but things changed dramatically when he opened Carmine’s Restaurant and Bar at the corner of the main strip and 19th Street where Acropolis currently stands.
“When I first had the cafeteria, Seventh Avenue had no nightlife,” he says. “No one came here at night. We saw an opportunity so we said ‘Let’s go to Seventh, make pizza and do lunch and dinner.’ We got a beer license and that started the process. Carmine’s, I believe, really started the night life in Ybor.”
Carmine’s outgrew the original location after eight years and moved just a few blocks to the former Jay Crawford Macdonald Thrift Store, where they still are today.
There, he installed a baby grand piano and hired a hip singer named Reverend Ralph, who Carmine says, “had black slicked hair and was just like Jerry Lee Louis,” to sing in the evenings. When the venue Masquerade opened across the street, things just clicked.
Soon, Ybor City was drawing a college crowd.“And that was the first time in Tampa that a crowd could park in Ybor and walk and check out a new place,” Carmine says. “And that’s what started nightlife in Ybor. From there all these nightclubs started opening.”
Carmine would later build one of the first balconies, a courtyard bar and even his own upstairs nightclub, Luna. The place was kicking on the weekends, and so was the menu. Carmine sums his cuisine up as “the flavors of Ybor City,” a homogeneous blend of Spanish, Italian, Cuban and American classics.
“At the Acropolis location, we saw a need for an Italian restaurant,” he says. “Then we saw need for Cuban, so we sold yellow rice, baked chicken and roast pork. That’s what Carmine’s has developed into. Cuban-style roast pork, crab meat pasta and our signature devil crabs.”
His menu reflects Ybor’s colorful history, and Carmine says it also pays homage to the diversity of Seventh Avenue. What makes the area so attractive, he says, is the variety. Throughout his 28 years in Ybor, he’s seen a lot of places come and go. If there’s one thing that’s stayed the same, it’s the area’s signature sandwich.
“When you think about it, Ybor is like a lot like the Cuban,” he says. “Ham, roasted pork, salami, Swiss cheese; the only thing Cuban about it is the bread.
But they all work so well together and that’s a lot like Ybor. We’re all trying to make this place better for everyone.”
Besides the devil crabs, Carmine’s is known for its blue crab meat pasta. The dish is served only on the weekends and has sweet chunks of blue crab meat mixed with marinara sauce, choice of spaghetti, linguine, ziti or angel hair pasta.
New Orleans and Key West inspired Carmine’s after-five idea, but the cuisine reflects Ybor’s colorful history, with Cuban, Italian, Spanish and American classics highlighting the menu.
Carmine is a Tampa native and Tampa Catholic graduate who opened his first restaurant at 20 and has spent the past 28 years in Ybor City – 13 of which were on Seventh Avenue – making it one of the oldest establishments.