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Eat, drink and be humbled

[Times photo: Amy Scherzer]
The cooks of the Krewe of Sant’Yago meet for food and friendship. Clockwise from left are Henry Fernandez, Dennis Alvarez, Billy Palmisano, Mario Plazza, Andrew Arena, Simon Canasi, Frank Garcia, Sammy Arena and Vince Pardo.

By AMY SCHERZER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 21, 2003

It's dog eat dog while eating like a king at the monthly gathering of Tampa's most influential krewe members, where egos are grilled as often as steaks.

TAMPA -- Judge Sonny Palomino sautes broccoli florettes in garlic and olive oil. Ybor City development director Vince Pardo slices prosciutto, just arrived from a friend in Italy. Dermatologist Michael Scannon pours vermouth on a pan of button mushrooms and chanterelles, fresh picked and Fed Ex'ed from his sister in California.

Bailiff Frank Garcia pours himself a glass of wine. Singing twins Sammy and Andrew Arena sample hors d'oeuvres.

Frank Sinatra croons in the background, like he's another one of the guys.

"We eat, insult each other, smoke cigars and drink brandy and Sambuca," sums up optometrist Henry Fernandez.

Friends for decades, a dozen or so Tampa men take turns cooking dinner for each other at Fernandez' Dana Shores home.

It's not just a fondness for food that brings them together on the first Tuesday of the month. The brotherhood of the kitchen grew out of the Krewe of the Knights of Sant'Yago, the men's club that sponsored last Saturday night's parade in Ybor.

"We're like a krewe within the krewe," Pardo says.

Their cooking dates evolved from regular Tuesday krewe meetings at the Columbia Restaurant.

Almost two years ago, retired Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez decided to ditch the first meeting of the month to cook for his friends. Fernandez -- one of the founders of the 30-year-old krewe and a past king -- offered his home.

They dubbed themselves "FEO," which, depending on who they're telling, stands either for "Friends Eating Out" or the Spanish translation, "ugly."

Besides Alvarez, Fernandez, Pardo, Garcia, Palomino and the Arena brothers, the regulars include Lazzara Catering president Tim Lazzara, retired accountant Tom Ferraro; Billy Palmisano, owner of Village Lawn Care; and Merrill Lynch executive Simon Canasi.

Tile World of Italy owner Mario Plazza is the newest member. Dr. Scannon, who describes himself as the "token Anglo," is married to Fernandez' niece.

Ringleader Alvarez gives each man a month to plan the menu, shop, cook and serve.

Between courses, they banter and bait, sing and check basketball scores.

The insults sizzle like the thick chops on the grill.

"You're too short to play baseball," someone shouts.

"Besides you're ugly," ribs another.

"So's your twin," a third retorts.

The chef du jour gets to invite a couple of guests, "but not too many because my table seats 16," says Fernandez. Surveying his dinner companions, he jokes: "Don't take the napkin rings, I put a metal detector by the front door."

They all have nicknames, some best omitted from a family newspaper.

Garcia is "Flamingo" because he wears pink tights with his krewe costume. "I look better in my pink tights than some woman would," says the lanky bailiff.

Ferraro is "Triple F," short for "fat friend Ferraro."

"Let your hair down and let the insults fly," invited Ferraro to all.

Palomino is "Horse," of course. The twins are Harpo and Zeppo, nationally known singers. Every 20 or 30 minutes or so, the two burst into Italian ballads.

Lazzara doesn't like it when the others tell him he looks like a mobster.

"He likes to think he looks like Alec Baldwin, but he really looks more like Beaver Cleaver," says Canasi.

They slice and dice each other all night.

"Nothing to take personal," adds Alvarez.

"If they do, tough," returns Canasi.

Fernandez gets up to make coffee.

"He'll burn it," says Alvarez. "He burns water."

"I ask 'em if they want decaf or regular and then I pour them from the same pot," says a grinning Fernandez.

* * *

It is the evening of Feb. 4.

The dining dozen have allowed a visit from a woman. A non-cooking woman, at that.

"You're the first woman to ever break bread with us," Fernandez says.

I feel honored. No wives or girlfriends have ever been invited, I am told.

"They don't mind; they have plenty of occasions to go out with us," says Fernandez. His own wife, Olga, is in a private Alzheimer's care home.

I take a place next to David Gee, heir apparent to the Hillsborough County sheriff's throne.

Emerald green linen covers the table beneath a centerpiece of red blooms.

"This isn't just because you're here," Fernandez assures me. "I always set the table. I used to use Limoges, but I had to stop that."

Month after month, the men take the same seats. Places were assigned "so you could put your wine glass down at your seat and never lose it," Fernandez explains.

Previous guests have included Monsignor Laurence Higgins, mayoral candidate Frank Sanchez and lawyer Alton White Jr.

Alvarez calls this the hottest ticket in town. He announces a few rules as we arrive.

No. 1: "Leave your ego at the door." And a close second: "What's said here, stays here."

Despite the endless teasing, the guys take their cooking seriously.

Vince Pardo once prepared cioppino, an Italian bouillabaisse. Sammy Arena made veal chops and Spanish bean soup. His twin Andrew stuffed chicken with crab meat and shrimp, served it with lentil soup and, for dessert, doled out strawberry shortcake. Lazzara whipped up fettuccine alfredo with lobster and shrimp.

Chef Alvarez grilled baby back ribs, served with baked beans, cole slaw and corn bread. "The only real Anglo meal we've had," he calls it.

Four men do not cook but have "designated chefs" instead. Palomino pinch hits for Fernandez, who pays for the groceries.

Canasi is among the four. They go on and on about his disaster dinner, the time he bought a Mediterranean feast from a local restaurant. It was not a hit.

"We all left and went to the pancake house for dinner," Alvarez says.

No one worries about Canasi's feelings.

He's just one of the guys.

"We just know we'll leave hungry when Simon cooks," Garcia quips.

"They pick on me because I'm the only Cuban in the group," says Canasi, who is also partly of Middle Eastern descent.

"We couldn't take another one like Simon," Alvarez says.

While food may be the mission, friendship is the message. The men attend krewe events, travel together, sit with each other at Yankees games. In September, they flew to Oviedo, Spain, to Palomino's wedding.

"He had nine best men and a bridesmaid -- Sammy," says Alvarez, teasing Sammy Arena, the only single guy in the bunch.

After dinner, some wash and dry dishes while others adjourn to the lanai.

In clouds of cigar smoke, between sips of Sambuca, the razzing goes on.

They pull out a scale to figure out who weighs the most, Lazzara or Ferraro.

They chant greetings to one of Canasi's "226 ex-girlfriends," who happens to live across the canal. She's one of the few he didn't buy a car for, his pals taunt.

Alvarez asks Canasi if he wants to "go steady," figuring he could use a car.

"We joke around, but we love each other like brothers," says Sammy Arena.

"Not really," says Alvarez, getting the final word.

"We've just been telling you that."

-- Amy Scherzer can be reached at 226-3332 or .

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