Two waves of immigrants made Tampa Bay the tropical crossroads of culture it is today. The first wave came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was made up of Cuban, Italian, Spanish and Greek migrants.
The second wave came from elsewhere within the U.S. after the Second World War – northerners from Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and the like, looking to escape the cold.
Old-time Florida natives (people who go back four or five generations in Florida) are rare. They’re more often found in the farm country, away from the coast.
The beaches here are mostly barrier islands, and locals take the island attitude to heart. Sandals or flip-flips are standard issue. T-shirts are fine in all but the priciest of restaurants.
With so many bays, rivers and miles of coastline, and with so many warm weather days to enjoy it, it seems every resident either boats or has a friend who does. Weekends and holidays are spent fishing or cruising on the bay or in the gulf.
The Ybor City neighbourhood of Tampa remains the old homestead of Hispanic and Italian labourers who manned the tobacco factories of what was dubbed “Cigar City” early in the last century. They pioneered the Cuban sandwich found throughout the Bay area. The traditional version begins with baguette-style Cuban bread. Thin layers of ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles are stacked on top. Then the whole thing is toasted in a sandwich press. Tampa’s sandwiches, owing to the influence of Italian immigrants, also use Genoa salami.
Driving through Clearwater, and especially further north, you start to see three- and four-syllable Greek names on businesses and restaurants. This is en route to Tarpon Springs, a community with the highest percentage of Greek citizens of any U.S. city. It has been populated since 1890 when Greek immigrants came to harvest sea sponges from the Gulf of Mexico.
Along the docks, the smells of grilled lamb and the ocean, mingled with the languages spoken by the shopkeepers, feels wonderfully exotic.
The Greeks have their own strong coffee, thick as oil and sickly sweet. But more often than not locals start their day Cuban-style, with day-old Cuban bread buttered and dunked into steaming mugs of café con leche. Heavy on the milk and sugar, it’s a bit like having a buttery mocha dessert for breakfast. Try it. You will find it’s easy to get used to.