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He was generous with fruit, flowers

Published February 9, 2007


SEMINOLE HEIGHTS - As a young man growing up in Ybor City, and a student at Hillsborough High School, Ralph Lazzara Jr. always planned on going to college. His father had other ideas.

"It was always his dream to go to college, and he always talked about going to Tulane," said Chris Griffin, Mr. Lazzara's grandson. "But instead his father made him peddle fruits and vegetables to help out with the family's finances."

Mr. Lazzara reluctantly started working as a street peddler right after he graduated from high school in 1933.

By just a couple of years later, he opened his own grocery store, Lazzara's Courtesy Market, on Nebraska Avenue, a few blocks south of Hillsborough Avenue. The store became a neighborhood institution and remained open until Mr. Lazzara retired in 1981.

Mr. Lazzara passed away Feb. 1 at age 90. His health had been declining recently, but he was still active until just days before his death. He spent his entire life in Tampa. In fact, in his 90 years, he never lived farther south than 11th Avenue or farther north than Hillsborough.

For most of his adult life, he lived with his wife, Mary, in a home they built just a few steps away from the market.

He had first met Mary when they were both young and living in Ybor. "He would pass by her house and see her through the kitchen window doing her dishes," Griffin said. "After a while he started serenading her through the window as he passed by."

In their later years, Mr. Lazzara and his wife (who passed away in the 1990s) would often sing romantic Italian songs together. But the teenage Mr. Lazzara won the heart of his wife-to-be by serenading her with a novelty song of the era, called The Music Goes Round and Round.

"He said that for some reason, that song just made her laugh," Griffin said.

After they married, they moved to Seminole Heights, where they spent more than 60 years. They worked together at the market and spent many hours each year spearheading the Feast of St. Joseph at La Nuova Sicilia Unita Lodge in West Tampa, of which Mr. Lazzara was a past president.

They traveled extensively, often visiting Europe, taking cruises or going to the casinos in Biloxi, where Mr. Lazzara played poker while his wife played the slot machines. After his wife's death, Mr. Lazzara became a regular in the poker room at Tampa's Hard Rock Casino.

Mr. Lazzara spent the last year of his life in a retirement home in the Carrollwood area.

Fruits and vegetables weren't just his livelihood, they became his calling card. When he'd visit his children and grandchildren, he'd always bring boxes of apples, grapes or guava pastries. At the retirement home, he became known as "Nano" or "The Banana Man," because he delighted in giving out bananas to everyone he knew there.

"He had an enormous back yard at his house, full of fruit trees and flowers," Griffin said. "I have memories of him coming in from the yard, and it was obvious he loved being outdoors, working with his hands. The fruits and flowers he gave showed his generosity, that he wanted to keep providing for us."

Besides his grandson, Mr. Lazzara is survived by sons Ralph Lazzara III and Philip R. Lazzara, daughters Marie A. Sanchez and Marlene L. Sacarello, eight grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

[Last modified February 8, 2007, 10:44:46]

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