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Tending to life

He's a bartender at night, single father of two by day. He'll listen to your hard luck tales, and sadly he has a few of his own.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 3, 2002


SOHO -- He's heard so many crazy stories, little makes him blush.

He shakes a swanky Cosmopolitan, but maintains a healthy respect for American light beer.

He's known to play chess with customers.

He's the guy behind the bar at Bella's Italian Cafe.

Meet Larry Heisel, 6-foot-4 inches of affability.

Sit back and sip as he tells you your name.

"Every friend I have in this town I met at this restaurant," he says.

Stay long enough and you'll hear a joke, maybe the one about the golfer and the leprechaun.

Even the young woman ordering lunch alone at the bar seems to feel at home. Heisel knows her, like he knows most customers at this Howard Avenue hangout, from cliquish South Tampa groupies to traveling salesmen.

He began pouring drinks at Bella's 15 years ago after he moved to Tampa from Oklahoma City, following previous employers Bill and Joanie Shumate. "I love it here," he says. "I could stay the rest of my life."

Gray hair caught up with him. So did his 40th birthday.

Over the years of listening to tales of joy and sorrow, he acquired a few tales of his own. Some, he kept to himself. Still, people knew, and when he felt like opening up, they were "better than any support group," he says.

He told of Meg and marriage. He told of Beth, now 10, and Katie, now 8.

He told of a wife lost two years ago to breast cancer.

He told of a brother's death.

And the life of a single father.

"So many people told me that they had been through the same thing, that they had similar things happen," he recalls. "A bar is as good a place as any when you're going through a life-altering situation."

He speaks at an engaging, rapid clip. He converses on almost any subject: the Catholic Church, the Middle East, Charles Dickens.

His philosophy on handling customers is simple: "As long as they play well with others, everyone's happy."

He's the son of an Air Force pilot. His family moved around a lot -- Texas, Delaware, Washington, D.C., and eventually Oklahoma City, where they stayed.

Heisel was a brainy kid who earned college chemistry credits in high school and scored a 33 (of 36) on his ACT test. Still, he wasn't drawn to academia. He dropped out of the University of Oklahoma.

"When I went back to my 20th high school reunion, people said, 'Are you doing anything with that?' and I said, 'Well, yeah, kind of."'

In a way, he didn't abandon chemistry.

Like cooking, mixing a good drink is part science, part emotion. He never went to bartending school, but can rattle off the ingredients -- and history -- of even the most obscure drinks. He can trace the history of mixed drinks back to bootleggers in the 1930s. He knows who mixed the first martini.

"I learned it all on the street," he jokes.

Try him.

Rob Roy? "Scotch and sweet vermouth."

Gimlet? "Gin with a dash of lime juice."

White Russian? "Vodka, Kahlua and cream."

He's noticed a change in drinking habits in his years as a bartender, more caution about drinking and driving.

He drinks in moderation, he says. His motto: "Never trust a bartender who doesn't drink."

His tastes are eclectic -- a gin and tonic, sangria, Captain Morgan's rum and Diet Coke, a martini with a steak at Bern's.

He likes to cook. Lately, gourmet fare has given way to macaroni and cheese for his daughters.

The girls grew up at Bella's, sometimes accompanying him to the restaurant when he had to fill in for someone who was sick and he couldn't find a sitter.

Now he rises at dawn after pouring drinks into the wee hours to get them ready for school. He cleans the house, does the laundry, shops for groceries -- all before heading off to work about 3 p.m.

"I'm a great believer in the afternoon nap," he says.

As a single dad, some things had to go, including regular golf games. Now he spends free time with the kids at Disney World or at dog beach with Frankie, the blue-eyed Australian shepherd named for the famous crooner.

The dad thing is cool. He sees some of his oldest bar customers dining on the restaurant side of Bella's, families in tow.

Life changes. But at Bella's the faces stay the same.

And chances are, Larry Heisel knows your name.

Larry Heisel

  • AGE: 40
  • OCCUPATION: Bartender
  • WHERE HE DRINKS: Mangroves, Ceviche, Four Green Fields.
  • WHERE HE LIVES: Davis Islands
  • NOSTALGIA: Misses the Chatterbox
  • FAMILY: Two daughters, ages 8 and 10.
  • MUSIC WHILE SIPPING: Classical, opera, rock.
  • RADIO HABIT: "A Prairie Home Companion."
  • DIVERSIONS: Golf, chess, cooking.
  • FAVORITE MOVIES: Black and white classics from the '30s and '40s.
  • BEST TRAIT: Doesn't hold a grudge.

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