The life and origins of an Italian-Cuban-Spanish Floridian
Editor’s note: What follows is an excerpt from I Am A Cuban Sandwich.
In the Pais Vasco, the Basque Country, a small region in the rugged mountains of Northern Spain, a young girl spoke to a young man, words that would change everything. “Yes” She said. Then she did something no one in her tight-knit family had ever done before. She left….for America.
At the same time stone mason from Alessandro della Rocca, Sicily had just come over to the states and landed somehow in Kankakee, IL, when he received word from relatives that a new movie house was being built in Tampa, Florida. This grand palace was to be in a Mediterranean design and they were looking for Old World craftsmen who could work in that style. Nonno, my grandfather packed up his family and headed south.
The year was 1926 and all over Ybor City workers would gather in the still-dark mornings. My Nonno would be up well before dawn each day. He would pack a lunch, a jar of coffee, pocketful of cigars and off to work, his family still snuggled in their beds. Only the bosses had cars or trucks, so the men would fill wheelbarrows with tools and make the long walk into what would someday be downtown. A small army of Cubans, Sicilians, Spaniards, and men from all over would join together in a long line as they made their way slowly down Nebraska Avenue, across the train tracks, then towards the river. They arrive at the site just as the sun began to rise. Gently they ease down their burdens for just a few moments and enjoy a quick café solo before beginning the days’ work. My Sicilian Grandfather was proud and happy to be one of those men. The Tampa Theater remains a landmark to this day.
My dad was Dominic N. DiPietra. Just to give you a hint to the man, the N stood for None. The license bureau insisted he have a middle name so he gave them one, None. During WWII he worked as a milkman with Florida Dairy. He was there for 40 years. His route took him throughout Ybor City, making stops at schools, stores, can companies and mostly, the restaurants. He would cruise right down 7th Ave in his big old milk truck, hitting them all in a row: Spanish Park, the Columbia, La Tropicana, Cuevos, Silver Ring, Las Novedades. Chances are if you got a café con leche in Ybor back in the day, my dad brought that milk.
During the summer I would ride along with him on the truck. Instead of any real work I just sat on the big seat next to him. When we got to the restaurants, I was treated like a prince. Everybody knew and loved my dad. At each stop, they’d offer up something special “For the kid.” There would be Cuban toast or hot cocoa in the morning, a guava pastry for a snack. For lunch, a Cuban sandwich and, afterward, maybe, a granita or a coconut ice cream. For a chubby little kid like me, I tell you it was La Dolce Vita!
That’s why I could never understand why so many people that I grew up with were always complaining about their childhoods. No matter where you grew up there were problems. It’s tough being part of the working class and that was most of my town. Our shared histories were ones of strife and leaving old ways for new worlds. In my family, there was never much money. We lived very modestly. My dad worked two jobs, at least and my mom sewed our clothes. But, man, did we love each other and sure as hell did eat well!
All in all, I lived a charmed life as a boy. Probably, because when I was very young…I met Marilyn Monroe.
JOE AND MARILYN
My godparents, like my Dad, were Sicilian and lived right across the street from us in Ybor City. Since they had no children of their own, they were really like a second set of parents to me. Italians have a saying: “Life is too hard to have just one father!”
They took me out to dinner with them on special occasions, dressed me up like a pirate for the Gasparilla parade every year, and there was always a new movie to catch at the Tampa Theater. One year when I was little, they took me with them to Redington Beach, to stay at the Tides, an upscale resort hotel right on the beach with palm trees, cottages and swimming pools. It was one of their places, as they liked to say. Meaning, that they went every year and people there knew them by name.
We were in the coffee shop one morning and I remember my godparents were chattering, in a couple of languages, all excited, buzzing about something one of the waitresses had told them. It became apparent that Somebody was staying in the resort. I really wasn’t paying much attention because I had pancakes to finish. So it was only later, as we were heading out the door that we saw them, Joe and Marilyn. Hand in hand, they’re strolling past when my godfather said something to DiMaggio in Sicilian. Joe turned, answering him back in the same language, with his chin and that goofy grin, laughing, just like I’d seen the men in my family do so many times. My godmother was shaking Marilyn’s hand and telling her how much they liked her. Me, I was in this little blue seersucker suit, my Easter outfit and suddenly, she came down to my eye level, touched the lapels of my jacket and said, with that voice, “And who is this little man?” “I’m Richard.”
“Hello, Richard, I’m Marilyn and this is Joe.” I squinted up at DiMaggio. He seemed about 20 feet tall, smiling down at me, hands deep in his pockets.
“How old are you, Richard?” She seemed like she really wanted to know. A little intimidated, but not wanting to let her down, I slowly counted out five fingers and held them up.
She looked up at Joe and arched one perfect eyebrow.
I remember her perfume was strong, so strong I nearly lost my head. It was probably Chanel. I know that now but then, I had never smelled anything like that before. It was so…heady, made me feel a little dizzy, kind of like the incense in church when you sat too close at High Mass.
I was a little overwhelmed and began shyly looking down at her feet. She was wearing these black flats and her foot was flexed, so the lining was showing which was shiny like silk and brightly colored with stripes of gold and red and brown. In contrast, her foot was white as marble. I was mesmerized.
Out of a fuzzy dream, I heard “Well, Richard, it was very nice meeting you, Bye, bye.” That jolted me out of my reverie and I barely got out a small, “Bye” as they walked away. DiMaggio already had his arm around Marilyn’s shoulder and turning her head she threw me one of those brilliant smiles. My godparents were all flustered, “Bedda Matri! Can you believe that?”
“And, they were so nice. What a happy couple!”
I just stood around bewildered, wondering what the hell was that all about!
You see, I had no idea then who this person was, but she left me with an idiotic smile on my face for the rest of the week. It was a daze that would soon work its way into our family mythology, because it was soon after that the 7 Year Itch came out and Marilyn took off like a rocket.
My mom would love looking through magazines, Photoplay, Life, and Look. She would sometimes order these books of the whole year in review, full of photos and stories. One day, a new book came; there was a 1955 on the cover. I was turning the pages looking for pictures when Holy Crap! Marilyn’s in here! And… her dress is all blowing up and you can see her legs and her panties! My mouth went dry; I could feel my little heart hammering away. I needed to inspect this a little further in private. Looking around, I decided. Ah, behind the sofa, perfect!
With the book all laid out, I was going through the photos, over and over, when suddenly, the room grew dim and I heard my father’s deep voice,
“What the hell are you doing back there?”
My old man lifted me up and took the book saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t be looking at this.”
“Noooo, it’s mine, it’s mine”, I cried. “She sent it for me!” My dad had a hard time keeping a straight face as he said, “Well, we’ll keep it for you until… you’re big enough.” And, so began a life of woman-worshipping for Richard.
But then came a day, it didn’t seem that long afterward. I was walking through the halls of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, with a note in my hand for one of the sisters. There was a rustle of fabric from behind me and Sister Stephanus hurried past, stopping at the open doorway and gesturing to the nun in the classroom.
As the sister came out of the door, she leaned over and whispered, “Marilyn Monroe just died!” Both the nuns were stricken. Tears streaming down their faces, they hugged each other, sobbing like little girls. I was shocked and saddened by the news but I still couldn’t keep my eyes off the two sisters.
These were young women – not much more than girls, like my three sisters really, with their own emotions and lives outside of this place. I had never thought of them that way before. To me, they’d always been just Penguins. Humorless, unemotional.
Standing there staring with my mouth open, I wasn’t even aware that I’d been crying until I looked down and saw the stains of the teardrops blurred the note in my hand. Lost, I turned and bolted down the corridor, sunlight streaming through the doorway at the end. I clanged onto the old metal fire escape. This was where we always came to bang the erasers – watching the clouds of chalk dust drift onto the basketball court below.
Looking blankly down at the street, I could see the corner drug store where we used to hang out, the sounds of pinball drifting up to the second floor.
The neighborhood was spread out before me; cigar factories standing tall in the distance, a typical sunny Ybor City day. It just didn’t seem as bright as I thought it should be.
Sr. Mary Margaret leaned into the doorway. “Richard, what are you doing out here?” Head down, I answered with a shrug. Sister tried again, “Did you hear what we were talking about in the hallway?” I nodded, the tears close now. Sister’s voice was soft, saying, “She’s at peace. Come on, let’s go back inside.”
“I can’t sister; the note.” I replied, showing her the tear-stained page. She comforted me taking the note saying,
“I’ll take care of that, don’t you worry.” Sister reached into her sleeve, pulled out a clean white handkerchief and gently wiped my tears. “Now go to the lavatory, wash your face and then back to your class. Everything will be fine.” I tried to get out a thank you sister but just couldn’t.
“Oh, Richard,” Sister said sweetly as she gave me a big hug. The feel of my cheek against the starched white bodice of her uniform was one of the most consoling things I have ever felt.
Lost, I blubbered, “I loved her!” Sister patted my back saying, “We all did.” although I said nothing. I was thinking, No, not like I did.
My Mother let me stay home from school the next day.
She said it was because I was running a temperature. But I wasn’t. She knew I was just sad.
It was a lifetime later; I was working at the Presidents’ Club, a private restaurant for power dining in downtown St. Petersburg on the 20th floor of a building. There were floor-to-ceiling windows with a fantastic view of the shimmering blue Gulf of Mexico. I wore a tuxedo every night.
Once during spring training, the Yankees’ owners, coaches and players all came in for dinner. My heart went into my throat when I saw DiMaggio walking in the door. He still looked great with his smooth silver hair, impeccable suit and tie, matching handkerchief. I felt like a little kid again as he walked right past me, his wingtips gleaming.
Now at this club, we were supposed to respect the guests’ privacy and not actually engage them in conversation. But, after dinner when I was pouring coffee, I noticed Joe, off by himself at one end of the table while everybody else talked big business. He seemed a little distant, if you didn’t know who he was and what he’d done; you might feel a little sorry for him. I got my nerve up.
“You probably don’t remember me, but I met you once before Mr. DiMaggio.”
“Did you, son?” Then I realized how silly that sounded. Joltin Joe had likely shaken 100,000 hands. But, I went ahead and told my story about meeting him with Marilyn at the Tides, on the beach. About halfway through, he seemed to look at me for the first time. I saw him glance at my name tag and then his whole face changed… softened, his dark eyes clouded over and, for a moment, there was the sound of waves and the smell of salt water. It was just like time travel. I got self-conscious, mumbled some apology for interrupting and backed away.
They had always seemed like the perfect couple to me, Joe and Marilyn. For that brief time, they were America’s sweethearts and then, it all came to such a heartbreaking end. Yet, here I was, eking out my humble existence, happily married with a lovely wife and a wonderful son.
Why I am
Ybor City was a completely different place when I was growing up. It was such a small town. Everybody knew everybody – or else they were related to them somehow. We would catch bass at the pond in Robles Park, we built our own rafts out of bamboo and floated down the Hillsborough River just like Tom and Huck. And, you could pick the fruit right off the trees! Oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, mangoes, guavas, Japanese plums. And, people didn’t seem to mind as long as you didn’t touch the avocados! They were serious about that; it was kind of a Garden of Eden thing.
I grew up in this idyllic little neighborhood where the houses were well cared for. Most everybody had a nice yard, green lawns of St. Augustine. Most of my aunts, uncles and cousins as well as, my grandparents from both sides of the family, all lived within a few blocks. You could walk anywhere, day or night. Kids played outside until long after the street lights came on.
It was pretty much a porch society with no AC.
“Tell your mother I said hello.” Women would say, as I passed. Men sitting back in a porch chair with a big tabacco called out the simple greeting, “DiPietra!”
There was a wonderful warmth and vitality with so many of the people sharing a similar background. The Cubans and Sicilians were all from the same few towns. And those from different backgrounds were still from the same working class, hanging on like hell to the status quo with dreams of a better life for their sons and daughters. Christenings, children’s birthdays, holiday celebrations, weddings and funerals were all faithfully attended, everyone glad to show their love and support. It was a wonderful time. Between wars, with a chance for all to work or study and plan their future… blissfully unaware of what exactly that future would bring.
Man, you wouldn’t believe how incredibly rich that neighborhood was! Walking the brick streets of Ybor was a treat for the eyes and ears, sure but the fragrance of people preparing their favorite food or drink was almost overpowering. Early every morning, the smell of coffee roasting would drift across the city from the south. Then, that whiff of olive oil warming up in a pan to make huevos fritos, fried eggs…done till the edges are crisp and brown, to be served over rice or with Cuban toast. Or, could be platanos going in the pan…platanos go with everything! Ripe and sweet or a little green and salty. And, who could forget the pungent aroma of garlic softening in olive oil, wafting out a window as you walked past? Soon to be joined by onions or peppers or both to make a sofrito, the very heart of Latin cooking and the foundation for most of the signature dishes, like yellow rice, black beans, picadillo, ropa vieja…Old clothes never tasted so good! As well as, the sugo, the red sauce for pasta. Talk about soul food!
But I gotta tell you, folks; if you don’t know already, that, bar none, the most appetizing of all these fantastic cooking smells of Ybor was the Cuban bread. Most everyone loves the smell of fresh bread baking. Imagine going into a bakery anytime and being greeted by that wonderful aroma. And you could get a loaf 3 feet long for what, a couple of bucks? Best money you could ever spend. Ah, that pale crispy crust with the soft white dough inside and graced with the signature palm frond. Nothing else like it in the whole world!
And, of course, the most popular use for the bread is to make Cuban Sandwiches. You can find Cuban Sandwiches almost anywhere now. I see signs for them all over. Every little gas station, convenience or grocery store, gourmet shops, bars, bakeries – I’ve even had one in Dublin! But did you know that the sandwich that you get here is unlike all the others? You see, if you ask someone from Miami or even Cuba how to make a Cuban sandwich, they have a whole different method than we do here in Tampa; the difference is subtle but distinctive.
OK, first, you gonna need some Cuban bread! It’s the best but in a pinch, any crusty loaf –style bread will do: French, Baguette, Ciabatta. Slice yourself off a piece that fits your individual needs and slit it evenly down the middle. Now, traditionally, the ingredients are layered in a very specific order. First, the ham, marinated and roasted with a lot of cumin for a happy life; covered with a glaze of caramelized sugar and then sliced thin, the thinner the better. I like it so thin you can almost see through it.
Then, pieces of tender juicy Cuban pork, bathed in mojo for days, a pungent marinade of bitter oranges from Sevilla. Next, the cheese, Swiss, always Swiss. Imported. From the Alps! A few well-placed dill pickles….not too thick, not too thin. On the top slice, lovingly spread yellow mustard. Marry the two sides and you’re done! As always, it’s a marriage of condiments and cultures, the Spanish ham with the Cuban pork.
This mix for a sandwich goes back to Cuba over 100 years ago and was continued here in Tampa by Cubans interested in preserving their heritage or just to show us what’s good! The difference being, that here in Ybor, Sicilians made their presence and preferences known. So…. a few slices of Genoa salami…with black peppercorns, were added to make a Cuban sandwich that you will find only in Tampa Bay! I like to think of it as crafted with harmony in mind and in an effort to make everybody happy.
My parents were both born here in the states; my grandparents came over yearning to breathe free, my mom’s from Spain and Cuba and my dad’s from Sicily. Whenever someone asks me my nationality, I always get a kick out of telling them, “I am a Cuban Sandwich.”