In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the fame of Tampa Bay as a great fishing ground and the coming of many Italians, attracted fishermen who soon made Tampa a major Italian fishing community.

 

Their names are well known to Tampans today:  Mirabella, Felicione, Matassini, Boromei, La Bruzza and Agliano.  For many years they owned large fishing fleets, and distributed their catch by refrigerated trucks throughout the Southeast. Many of them went into the seafood restaurant business with much success.


For about 70 years, the people of Tampa knew where they could find fresh seafood: the rustic little fish market on the water downtown, run by Buster Mirabella. "From the gulf to the fryer to your plate," said Buster's son Morris Mirabella. "That was the slogan, and that was pretty much the way it was."

The Mirabella seafood dynasty had its origin with Bastiano Mirabella, a Sicilian immigrant who started selling fish to hungry dock workers at the Port of Tampa.  In 1895, Bastiano and Concietta (Spano) Mirabella of Catania, Sicily, built a fish house fronting the Hillsborough River just north of the Fortune St. Bridge. In 1900, 38-year-old Bastiano, along with his 32-year-old wife of 14 years, Concietta and four children, Josephine, Mario, Francesco and Maria, lived on Fortune Street near the Hillsborough River at Spring Street. 

Their 1900 census, as seen below, shows Bastiano was in the grocery business.  The census enumerator made an error in listing their son, Mario, as a daughter "Mirabella Mirabella."  Josephine was 13, Mario was 9, Frank was 6 and Mary was 3.  Concietta was the mother of 6 children, but only 4 were living at the time of this census.  This record indicates they immigrated to the U.S. in 1888 and had been here 12 years.

 

 
By the time Bastiano and Concietta arrived in Tampa, the port was a busy, rough-hewn place short of creature comforts, shipping out phosphate, palmetto logs, turpentine and cedar. Tampa had absolutely surrendered to business.  Beans, bullets and tobacco for the growing cigar industry in Ybor City came ashore at Tampa's port.  Railroad offices and gritty warehouses sprang up along the riverbanks; the dirt that was turned for them was dumped into the water. Wastes - citric acid from discarded orange peels, sulfur, and sewage added to the malodorous stew.

Docks on the Hillsborough River by the Lafayette St. bridge, circa 1900

 

 

In 1910, the Mirabellas were still living by the river at 212 Fortune Street, as seen on their 1910 census below.  Bastiano was the proprietor of a fish market, and his sons Mario and Francesco were laborers at the store.  The Mirabellas had 3 more children; Rosa, born around 1900, Vincenzo, born around 1903, and Grazia, born around December 1909.  Their oldest daughter, Josephine, married around 1905 to Francesco Rodante, who along with their children, were listed in the same household, but cropped from the image below.  Francesco Rodante was a 25-year-old fisherman from Italy.  He and Josephine had children Gaitano, age 4 and Lucia, age 10 mos.
 

 

1920 Census of Mario and Santa Mirabella

Mario Mirabella married Santa Marina Spano around 1911 and by 1920 they were living at 1207 1/2 Spring Street near Hillsborough St. (see map below) with their children Conception, age 7, Sebastian, age 6, Camilla age 5, Josephine, age 4, Salvadore age 2 and Annie, age 1 yr 3 mos.  The 1920 census of Tampa City shows Mario Mirabella was a fish peddler.  Morris Mirabella, son of Sebastian "Buster" Mirabella, said family lore was that Mario and Santa sold fish from a cart.  They later opened Mirabella's Seafood Co. in the late 1920s.
 

 

 

 

 

Mirabella's fish company at 1420 Lozano Avenue with the original Fortune Street bridge in the background, 1924.

 

 

 

 

 

Mirabella's fish company at 1420 Lozano Avenue with Hillsborough River and Roberts City in the background, 1924.

 

 

 

The map at left shows Spring St. outlined in green, with Hillsborough St. underlined in blue.  These streets west of Ashley no longer exist there due to the interstate exit ramps.  Hillsborough St. is present-day Royal St. and Constant St. became Laurel St.

The uppermost bridge across the Hillsborough River was the Fortune Street Bridge, now named the Laurel Street Bridge due to re-routing of the streets in this area.

The red dot marks the 1400 block of Lozano Avenue, just a few short blocks from where the Mirabellas lived.  This was the location of the two 1924 Mirabella fish docks photos above.

 

In 1930, Mario "Mike" Mirabella and wife Santa were still living at 1207 Spring Street.  Mike was the proprietor of a fish market.  Conception was listed as "Constance" and Sebastian was listed as "Buster".  In addition to Carmelina, Josephine, Salvatore and Annie, the Mirabellas had children Frank around 1923 and Samuel around 1926.  Also living in their home, listed as Mike's mother-in-law, was Carmelina Spano, who was age 67 and widowed.  A few homes away at 1208 Spring Street, Mike's (Mario's) sister, Josephine Mirabella Rodante was living with her husband Frank Rodante and their 6 children, along with Josephine's uncle Jack Spano.  Frank Rodante was also listed as "proprietor / fisherman".  There were 8 other families listed on this page, who all rented their homes for $20 or less a month.  The Mirabellas and Rodantes were the only families on the page that owned their homes, which were valued at $2,000.
 

 

 

Men stand around a fish hanging from the ceiling inside the wholesale and retail fish store owned by the Mirabellas.

The original caption reads, "Diesel operating the 4-ton ice machine furnishes all the refrigeration in the wholesale and retail fish store owned by Mirabella Ice Company, Tampa, Florida.

Mike Mirabella, proprietor, is the man in the white trousers. This store receives fish from their own ships right at their back door.  May 12, 1939

 

 

View of the dock area on the Hillsborough River  used by Mirabella Fish Company's wholesale and retail store on Water Street. Men stand and sit near the receiving area, and boats dock nearby.

In the background is the north side of the Platt Street bridge.

May 12, 1939

 


Click to enlarge marker
The Mirabella Fish Co. was not located here before the late 1920s.  See explanation below.

 

Below:  Mirabella's Wholesale & Retail Seafood Co. at 233 S. Water St., 1946, as seen from the Platt St. bridge.

 


A view looking south along the Hillsborough River towards Seddon Island and the grassy islands, circa 1914
Mouse over the photo to see landmarks identified

 

The photo at right shows close up of above area where the historic marker claims Mirabella's was located since 1898.  This, and other photos showing Mirabella's Fish Co. further north at Lozano Ave. near Scott St. in the 1920s indicate that the company didn't operate near the Platt St. bridge until the 1930s.

The empty lot to the left of the closest sailboat appears to be where Mirabella's Fish Co. located in the 1930s.

 

 

The 1915 fire insurance map below shows the same area as seen above, but with north at the top.  Carew Ave. at lower right is where Platt St. would join in 1926 when the Platt St. bridge would be built.

The long building parallel to the water at upper left on the map is marked as vacant and is the same building seen in the photo above at lower left.

The larger building in the map at left is a Hendry & Knight Co. terminal.  The area along the river with the yellow stripes is marked as "Dilapidated Plank Wharf."

According to the Mirabella historic marker, the fish company would have been located along the waterfront where the Hendry & Knight terminal is located.

 

 

 

View of the site of the Mirabella Fish Co. at the foot of the Platt St. bridge, formerly 233 S. Water St.

It is now the site of USF Park along the Tampa Riverwalk.

 

Photo from Historic Marker Database

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Men unloading a day's catch from fishing boat at Mirabella Wholesale Fish Company dock on east bank of the mouth of the Hillsborough River: Tampa.  Aug. 22, 1939

 

The Mirabella fish house grew with the city, adding three fishing boats and riverside picnic tables where downtown workers in the 1930s and '40s enjoyed lunches of fresh snapper, grouper and deviled crab. The fishermen who harvested the seafood from the Bay and Gulf typically held some back, to give to the poor who clustered at the port.

 


 

In 1945, Florida took a state census.  Mario "Mike"and Santa Mirabella were living at 305 S. MacDill Ave. with their children Ann, Josephine, Frank and Samuel.  Mario was a merchant, Josephine a sales girl, and Frank and Samuel were in the army.  G.S and H.S. stand for grade school and high school as highest level of education.

 

MIRABELLA'S RESTAURANT

Mirabella's was just a market initially, but shortly after World War II, Buster Mirabella's brother Frank had the idea of serving prepared seafood meals. It was supposed to be a sideline, but in the 1940s, the family added a take-out service that offered seafood and chicken boxed dinners.  It became so popular that the family opened Mirabella's Seafood Restaurant at 327 North Dale Mabry in 1952.  Both were owned by the family, but Buster Mirabella ran the downtown location while Frank ran the restaurant. The seafood market continued to prosper, and at one time branched off to a 2nd location at Rome and Cass St.

Mirabella's on Dale Mabry

 

                  

 

 

 

 

 

Dining room of Mirabella's Restaurant, 327 North Dale Mabry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mirabella's dining room. circa 1967, and menu

Famous for the finest in Florida seafood; 327 North Dale Mabry. Owned and operated by The Mirabella Fish Co., Inc.  Seafood supplied to our kitchen directly from our own fishing fleet; our complete menu includes chicken and steak; take-out service available. Frank Mirabella, Manager

 

The following eight photos featuring Mirabella's Restaurant and Chef Rudy Romero with others were graciously provided by Mr. Romero's daughter, Sandra Romero Deck.

In the kitchen at Mirabella's Restaurant
Chef Rudy Romero on the left, with two of his kitchen assistants, circa early 1960s

 

Mirabella's Restaurant Chef Rudy Romero (L) with restaurant owner/manager Frank Mirabella (R), circa late 1960s

This newspaper feature was titled "Tampa After Dark At Mirabella's seafood restaurant... Hostess Birdie Wimmer and head chef Rolando Romero."
 

 

 

Chef Rudy Romero sitting on the stool, and two employees who assisted him in the kitchen Chef Romero receiving an award for his prized paella dish at Mirabella's Restaurant

 

 

Rudy Romero with two waitresses at Mirabella's, April 1970 Rudy Romero and Frank Mirabella's wife, Martha, who sometimes worked at the restaurant, April 1970
   
State of the art automation at Mirabella's
April, 1971

Frank Mirabella and Rudy Romero behind the bar at Mirabella's, looking over a machine (the one with the tubes) they had just installed that would mix drinks automatically without the need for a bartender. According Mr. Romero's daughter, Sandra Romero Deck, they were very proud of this innovation.

 

 

SEBASTIAN "BUSTER" MIRABELLA

Buster was born in Tampa in 1913 and spent most of his life running Mirabella's Seafood Co., which his parents Mario and Santa started when he was a teenager. He lived his whole life in Tampa and worked in his parents' seafood business from the time he was 14 until he was 75.  "It was all he ever knew, but I think he loved it," said his daughter, Santa Floyd. "I never once heard him say, 'Oh, darn. I have to go to work now.' Not once."

In 1938, Buster married Salvadora Teresa Messina.  Salvadora was born in 1918 and was a daughter of Antonio Messina and Rosalia Damico Messina.  Together, they turned the downtown market into such a Tampa institution that it seemed everyone in town knew Buster and Salvadora Mirabella. City leaders often tried to persuade Buster to run for the City Council. "He always thought his lack of education would keep him from being elected," his daughter said. Because he started working when he was 14, Buster Mirabella never finished high school.

 

 

The market on Water St., circa 1970s

Mirabella's Seafood Co. closed in 1988, with Buster as president, Frank as vice president, Sam as secretary and treasurer, and their sister Josephine Samuels as director.   Buster Mirabella was still enjoying the work, but the opening of the Tampa Convention Center changed traffic patterns and made it difficult for customers to reach Mirabella's. Chains like Red Lobster and Shells took customers and suppliers away from the mom-and-pop places. Besides, Mr. Mirabella was 75 and getting tired of unloading boats of seafood at midnight.

"I think he just thought it was time," his daughter said. He called it quits.

 

 

After retirement, Buster Mirabella remained active in the family's restaurant. But the market had been the main supplier of its seafood, so the restaurant lasted only another couple of years. He spent his later years relaxing with his wife, Teresa, who died in 2006, and indulging his longtime passion for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "He was one of the first season ticket holders," his son said. "He went to every game, rain or shine, even when they weren't winning any of them. He'd always say, 'They'll win the next one,' and he kept saying that until they did start winning."

Sebastian "Buster" Mirabella, co-owner of the now-closed Mirabella's Seafood Restaurant and fish market, died in March, 2008.  He was 94.   He died of heart failure March 15 after several years of declining health.   

 

"He was just a hardworking man," said Norma Salter, Mirabella's fish market cashier of 31 years, until it closed.  She said Buster Mirabella "was the best boss you could have and a very nice man. He liked everybody." Though he never ran for office, Buster Mirabella thrived in the local political scene, helping his brother Sam run for and win a seat on the city council.  Buster was an avid supporter of the March of Dimes and participated in the Bayshore Boulevard walks every year.

 

He was one of the first season-ticket holders for the Buccaneers and attended all home games well into his 80s. "We kept praying he would see them win the Super Bowl one time, and they finally did," his daughter, Santa Floyd, 66, said.  After retirement, he started a discussion group that met at El Pilon restaurant on MacDill Avenue. Old friends would discuss politics and Tampa as it used to be.

 

"In all my life I never heard him say a bad word about anybody," Morris Mirabella said.  He was preceded in death by his loving wife of 67 years, Salvadora Teresa Mirabella.  Also preceding him in death were his parents, Mario "Mike" (d. July 24, 1970) & Santa Mirabella (d. July 1, 1979), sisters Connie Scionti, Annie Mirabella, and Josephine Samuels, and brothers Sam & Salvadore Mirabella.

 

He left loving and devoted sons Morris (and wife MaryJo) Mirabella, Tony (and wife Lynne) Mirabella and daughter Santa (and husband Huey) Floyd, sister Millie Messina and brother Frank Mirabella; grandchildren Leslie Alessi, Patty Rodriguez, Kim Santiesteban, Dean Mirabella, Kevin Floyd, Jason, Nathan & Rachael Mirabella; great grandchildren, Giana, Natalia, & Nicholas Alessi, Alana & Juliana Rodriguez, Brooke & Bryce Santiesteban, Tyler & Gabriel Mirabella, Sadie Lynne & Sebastian Mirabella III, and Morgan James Mirabella, and many loving nieces & nephews.

 

Buster attended Christ Community Church and was a member of the Masons, Shriners, Elks, Civitans, Italian Club & Sons of Italy. He was a devoted husband, father & grandfather & was a good & decent kind gentle man.

 

 

This 34-page booklet sponsored by Mirabella's is full of fish facts.  In addition to the practical fish guide and why you should eat fish, it contains information such as "Why fish is a health-building food", How to buy fish, Forms or cuts of fish, How to select fresh fish, How much fish to buy, How to serve fish, purchasing frozen fish, How to dress fish for cooking, Hints on cooking fish, Information and recipes for fried, boiled, baked, planked, broiled, and flaked fish, fish soups, How to buy, open & clean oysters, clams, lobster, crab, shrimp, scallops and sauces and stuffings, with recipes for all.  Brochure courtesy of Dick Wheeler.


See this entire brochure (you must be logged into Facebook)

 

SAM MIRABELLA

Sam Mirabella was born in 1926 and grew up in the working-class environment of Tampa, adopting its values.  For him, the water was not only the source of his family's livelihood but a constant companion. As a boy, Sam liked to swim in the river near the Cass Street Bridge. He swam in it, fished in it, explored it in boats. He shared his love of the water with his grandchildren, passing along the family heritage of fishing. For them, it is sport. For generations of the Mirabella family, it was life.

The Mirabella Fish Co. supported the family for decades. "Dad and Mama were very young when their families came here,'' said Sam Mirabella, who grew up just two blocks from the river. "We were raised on fish and spaghetti.''

 
Buster and Sam Mirabella, working the restaurant in April, 1985.  

Sam Mirabella graduated from college and served three full Tampa City Council terms and a partial term.  He served District 2 in terms from Oct. 1, 1959 to Oct. 1, 1963, from Oct. 1, 1963 to Oct. 3, 1967 and from Oct. 3, 1967 to Sept. 30, 1971, and from Sept. 30, 1971 to Nov. 2, 1971.  The initial election of September 1971 resulted in a run-off for the seat for Council District 2 between Sam Mirabella and Joe Kotvas. The run-off election was held on September 28, 1971 and was challenged and eventually declared invalid. A final run-off for the seat was held on November 2, 1971, resulting in the election of Joe Kotvas.  Mr. Kotvas took his seat at the November 9, 1971, Council meeting.

Upon Sam Mirabella's death in 2006,  Hon. Jim Davis of the Florida House of Representatives, stated on April 27, 2006,  "Mr. Speaker, I rise in honor of Sam Mirabella, who embodied the boundless spirit of his native Tampa, Florida and was devoted to serving his community. During his 12 years as a Tampa City Councilman, Sam played an important role in improving our city and helped usher Tampaís government operations into modem times. And as a charter member of The Tampa Sports Authority, Sam was instrumental in bringing Tampaís first stadium to life and putting Tampa on the map for Americaís sports fans and teams. However, the people Sam served didnít have to go to City Council meetings to bend Samís ear. Sam, with his trademark cigar and colorful sense of humor, was always available at Mirabellaís Seafood Co., which he co-owned. Even in his retirement, Sam was a fixture in South Tampa, riding his bike through the neighborhoods on a daily basis and stopping to talk to just about anyone who crossed his path. Sam served his country in World War II and was always giving back to his hometown through a host of community and charitable organizations. A die-hard Gator fan, Sam was also eager to support his alma maters, the University of Florida and H.B. Plant High School. Samís passing is a tremendous loss for the Tampa community. I would like to extend my deepest sympathies to his family and many friends."

Sam was survived by his wife, Marie Dean Mirabella (who passed away in Aug. 2010) and children, Sam Mirabella Jr., Charles M. Mirabella, and Shelly M. Lightsey; and his grandchildren, Lauren, Michael, Jack, Matthew and Simi; as well as many nieces and nephews.

 

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"He helped sustain Mirabella's good name"