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Flour, sugar and a whole lot of hot water

photo
[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
From left, Domenic Massari III takes care of some baked goods, while his mother, Grace, and sisters, Donna Bevis and Sylvia Griswold, assist customers.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 21, 2002


He's facing trouble in his main profession, the law. But baking fruit tarts and chocolate chip cookies takes his mind off it.

VIRGINIA PARK -- The way Domenic Massari III sees it, his life is like a chocolate souffle.

Sometimes, it's rich and airy.

Other times, it falls flat.

But it's always complicated.

Massari is part lawyer, part baker and -- critics claim -- part trouble maker.

He admits it's an odd combination. He's often in hot water.

These days, Massari is fighting to keep his license, accused of stealing $30,000 from a client. A few weeks ago, he wound up on the police blotter, arrested with a pornographic videotape of a 17-year-old girl.

"The wheel of karma has turned," he says of his recent "bad breaks."

He could offer explanations.

He'd rather offer a wedge of Grand Marnier Souffle, or a slice of Chocolate Mousse Cake, followed by his Seattle Cinnamon Rolls.

Cares always vanish in Massari's kitchen, lost in a puff of baking powder.

Some days he consults clients on dicey legal matters. Other days, he just dices. And minces and sifts and stirs, whatever it takes to keep his family's coffee shop, Ashley Espresso, in sweets.
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Domenic Massari III shows off a tray of perfectly round Ebony and Ivory Cookies made with white and dark chocolate chips.

No one sues over his baking.

"It's a way for me to keep giving people pleasure without any controversy," he says.

Controversy?

There he was, he says, hired by an adult film company to return an embarrassing tape to a teenager's parents, only to be greeted by an undercover Tampa police officer and thrown in jail.

He calls the arrest "ridiculous" and hopes it will go away. "It's so stupid," he says.

Massari doesn't make light of his disbarment threat. His case is under appeal, and if he loses, he'll be banned from practicing law for five years.

Still, he knows he can put food on the table. And he doesn't need to be a lawyer to continue doling out business advice, the bread and butter of his practice.

His rise to head baker at Ashley Espresso, 3201 S Dale Mabry Highway, began as simple banter between siblings. His oldest sister, Donna Bevis, boldly asserted that no one could make perfectly round chocolate chip cookies consistently.

Massari disagreed.

He won the challenge, earning the family title as top cookie-maker. Now, he spends a few hours each morning making perfectly round Ebony and Ivory Cookies, with dark and white chocolate chips.

Bevis and their mother, Grace, bought the coffee shop two years ago as a fun business venture for the whole family. Three generations work there, including all five Massari siblings, Domenic, Donna, Cathy, Sylvia and Patricia, and several of the 11 grandkids.
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A batch of fresh-baked Seattle cinnamon rolls with raisins and walnuts cools in time for the morning coffee rush at Ashley Espresso.

Domenic, 49, is the eldest. Patricia, 35, is the youngest.

The sisters rotate behind the counter, taking orders and making lattes.

Big brother mans the oven.

"It's creative," he says. "You're constantly trying new things. You get to go with your heart and not with your brain all of the time."

His heart tells him not to skimp on chocolate and butter. He'd just as soon break open a bag of Keeblers.

"If you're not going to make it with the best, then don't make it," he says, acting on the advice of his father, Domenic Jr.

His mother taught him to bake. At 73, she makes banana bread, cinnamon loaves and pineapple upside-down cake for the coffee shop. She also works as an independent vendor at Busch Gardens, selling sunglasses and other items.

At some point in the day, all of the siblings come in for a dose of coffee, cookies and conversation. The sisters have other jobs but work at the cafe to stay close.

Donna directs the Seaborne Day School on Davis Islands. Cathy cares for premature babies at Tampa General Hospital. Sylvia sells merchandise at area theme parks. And Patricia goes to college.

It's a tight-knit, Spanish-Italian family at times held together by food. To them, food speaks of happy moments, as it has for generations.

Nothing is said in a whisper.

Customers are treated like family. Some sympathize with Massari's latest run-in with the law.

"Everybody I see just laughs it off," he says.

Others have calories to contend with.

Regular Debra Merin laments that she's gained 10 pounds since dropping by Ashley's every day.

"I'd rather have dessert here than any restaurant," she says.

Her favorite? Everything, although nothing beats a fresh fruit tart.

Massari also cooks several nights a week at his Parkland Estates home, making staples of risotto and cannelloni, his favorites. A typical home-cooked meal: Szechwan baked snapper, roasted artichokes and southern-style zipper peas. For dessert, he makes gelato.

Friends and family consider him a hot commodity in the kitchen.

Several say he should open a restaurant or a dessert shop.

It might be less controversial than law.

For now, Massari says he's content to see clients and bake goodies.

Especially souffles, however they rise or fall.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3463 or thurston@sptimes.com.

Domenic Massari III

AGE: 49

PROFESSION: Lawyer.

CALLING: Cookie maker.

MOST ABUNDANT INGREDIENT: Hot water.

HOURS IN THE KITCHEN: Up to 25 a week.

IF NOT COOKING: Baking.

IF NOT BAKING: Reading about food.

FAVORITE DESSERT: Souffles.

SOMETHING TO ENVY: His high metabolism.

MISSPENT YOUTH: Singer, guitarist in a 1970s rock band.

FAMILY: Wife, Rebecca; four grown children.

FASTEST KID: Son Anthony is a professional race car driver.

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