The hidden history of Tampa’s underworld is often intertwined with some of the city’s most cherished landmarks and popular restaurants. Tampa really didn’t have the storefront social clubs popular in cities like Boston and New York City. But Tampa did have more than its share of lounges, bars, restaurants, and newsstands where bolita bets were taken, baseball odds conveyed, drug deals went down, and local gangsters held sit-downs with visiting crime figures from New Orleans, New York, and Chicago.
There are many not-so-secret spots where the wiseguys used to hang out. Dale Mabry has Donatello’s, the Tahitian Inn, the Palma Ceia Newsstand, 2001, Shangri-La, and the Tapper Pub, all known at one time or another as choice spots for mobster sightings. The original Malio’s on Dale Mabry was a favorite haunt. According to Trafficante soldier John Mamone, when he was formally “made” or inducted, into the local Mafia by Steve Raffa in the mid 1990s, the ceremony took place at Malio’s.
Hillsborough Avenue also has a few choice locations. The parcel at 3001 W. Hillsborough was owned by the estate of Santo Trafficante, Sr. and was at various times the Kit Kat Club, the Starboard Lounge, and the Tangerine Lounge. They were operated by the Trafficante brothers, mainly Fano.
Just down the block, nary a stone’s throw away, is 3523 W. Hillsborough, an address that is no longer listed in property records. A construction site at the time, it was here that Angelo Giglio lured Rene Nunez in September of 1952. Giglio was reportedly sent by Trafficante, Jr. to talk Nunez into folding his gambling operation into the Mafia. But both were on the outs in the underworld and were gunned down by an unknown assailant.
Not all the mob hangouts are distant memories on Hillsborough. Right across from the Nunez/Giglio scene, at 3605 Hillsborough Avenue, is Club Mirage, where one-time manager Jimmy Cadicamo held court. An associate of the Gambino crime family, Cadicamo was arrested with John Gotti, Jr. in 2008 as part of an indictment against the Gambino crime family’s activity in Tampa. Club Mirage was featured prominently in the indictment. Cadicamo claimed in court that he owned the club, but his ownership is being contested by another Gambino mobster, John Alite. While Gotti beat the rap after his fourth mistrial in a row, Cadicamo pled guilty on May 17, 2010 to racketeering.
Down on Kennedy Boulevard was the former Castaways Lounge, now the Lazzara Liquors store. For a while in the late 60s and early 70s, the Castaways was considered by law enforcement as the unofficial headquarters of Frank “Daddy Frank” Diecidue, longtime underboss of the Tampa Mafia. Diecidue, who died in 1994, had a motley crew of drug dealers and arsonists, some of whom were implicated in the 1975 murder of Tampa Police Detective Richard Cloud. A bartender at the Castaways was the late Johnny “Scarface” Rivera, a noted mob associate, one-time bodyguard of Charlie Wall, and a suspected hitman.
As expected, Ybor City has more gangland haunts and hangouts than any other part of the city, and appropriately so, since it was where the bolita syndicate started and ran their operations for most of the early years of Tampa’s history.
At 2201 15th Street North in Ybor City, sits the structural shell of the Yellow House Bar. In the 1950s and 60s, the Yellow House was owned by Augustine “Primo” Lazzara, a regular feature in the papers for his ties to the bolita racket, and named as an integral part of the Tampa Mafia during the McClellan Commission hearings in 1963. Rumors circulated that the Yellow House, built in the 1920s, once housed a brothel upstairs. On June 30, 1950, Primo’s bodyguard was leaving the Yellow House with $2,000 worth of checks when he was held up at gunpoint. The Ybor City buzz grew so loud that the Tampa Tribune did an article on the robbery the next day. An unidentified relative told the Tribune, “We know who did it. We are waiting until we hear from Primo before we act.”
La Tropicana Café (1822 E. 7th Avenue) is one of the most popular lunch spots in Ybor City. On the wall is a picture of the former owner, Frank “Cowboy” Ippolito, who before his death in 2008 was a regular fixture at the restaurant. In the 1960s and 70s, Frank did more than eat a bowl of black beans at “La Trop.” Law enforcement investigations found him running a sizeable bookmaking operation out of the restaurant with the help of Henry Trafficante.
Outside the 7th Avenue corridor of Ybor was the Dream Bar (2801 Nebraska Avenue), originally called the Nebraska Bar. It had an adjoining poolroom (2806 Nebraska Avenue) and was owned by the Trafficante family. The long-time bartender and manager was Nick Scaglione, a gambling figure who was well-known to police and named by law enforcement as a made guy in the local Mafia.
On August 18, 1954, just a week after the death of Santo Trafficante, Sr., police were called to the bar to investigate a reported shooting. When police arrived they found blood on the sidewalk out front and a torn shirt inside. The customers, including Frank Ippolito, claimed no knowledge of the shooting and police never found a victim. But there was a victim a few years later when Nick Scaglione was stabbed while tending bar. He refused to name his assailant. The Dream Bar was also at the center of a federal tax lien against the estate of Santo Trafficante, Sr. In 1962, when the Feds started closing the noose around the Trafficante brothers (Santo Jr., Henry, and Sam), the bar was damaged in a fire.
Then there is the Columbia. The Columbia Restaurant is THE Tampa landmark. And it was the favorite eating establishment of the enigmatic Santo Trafficante, Sr., as well as his son and namesake, Santo Jr. The elder Trafficante was a virtual unknown to law enforcement for most of the early 20th century. He stood back in the shadows, while men like Ignazio Antinori and Charlie Wall were well-known crime figures about town. When his son, Santo Jr., took over the family operations, he was also a regular fixture at the Columbia. It was also popular with FBI agents tailing the crime boss; dozens of field intelligence reports were recorded over plates of the “1905 Salad.”
Trafficante, Jr.’s bodyguard James Costa Longo worked at the Columbia from the late 1950s through at least the early 70s, as well as at various other legitimate enterprises. This, of course, was in addition to his alleged bookmaking and stolen property rackets. Longo often used the Columbia as a meeting place, like in April of 1962 when he was spotted meeting with Santo Trafficante, Jr., and Lou Coticchia, a notorious Miami racketeer. The next time Lou had dinner with Trafficante, in Miami, he disappeared for good.
But like many cities, Tampa’s past often gets bulldozed, torn down, or simply left to fall away. Some of the legendary places of underworld activity that have slipped into history are:
Buffalo Avenue Drug Store (3924 Nebraska Avenue, now a service station)– According to a grand jury investigation in 1968, John Demmi and Fred Navarra ran bookmaking out of the drug store throughout the 1960s.
Max Lemeis Sundry Store (1605 15th Street, Ybor, now a parking garage)–In the same hearings, authorities stated that Henry Trafficante used this address to take sports bets and run bookmaking. Nick Scaglione was also a frequent visitor to the sundry store.
Zack Street Newsstand (401 E. Zack Street)–Another Henry Trafficante bookmaking location. He often met with suspected bolita bankers Joe Plescia and “Gasoline” Martinez at the stand.
Tony’s Sundries (856 E. Zack Street, now an empty lot downtown, near the train station)–This was another headquarters for Nick Scaglione’s gambling enterprise.
There are more: Brothers Lounge on Kennedy, a jazz club owned by alleged crime boss Vincent LoScalzo; The Legend Club at 3447 West Kennedy, named as a hangout of Frank Diecidue during a drug investigation in the mid 1980s; Mike’s Lounge on Nebraska Avenue, also named in that same drug investigation. In downtown Tampa, you had the Silver Meteor Lounge, Rio Liquors, Anthony Distributors, the Deep South Lounge, and the Red Top Bar. There was The White Spot, The Boston Bar, The Neptune Lounge…the list goes on.
While most of the reputed mob hangouts are memories, there are still enough tangible pieces of that history around for urban explorers, historians, and mob watchers to check out and maybe catch a glimpse of one of the few remaining wiseguys from Tampa’s fabledunderworld history.