[mks_dropcap style=”squared”]M[/mks_dropcap]alio’s Steak House, a place where celebrities, local elite and sports celebrities regularly dined, closed its doors for good on Jan. 8, it marked the end of an incredible 35-year run. From humble beginnings, Malio Iavarone had transformed what was once Tropics Steakhouse on Dale Mabry Highway into a Tampa institution. His story is remarkable, to say the least.
Born in Tampa and raised in Seminole Heights, Malio attended Hillsborough High School, and along with brother Carmine, played football (word is, both were pretty good). He gave college a shot, but when his grades slumped, he figured he was better at making pizzas. In 1969, at the age of 25, he decided it was time to open a place of his own, but finding a bank willing to loan him the money to do so wasn’t easy. After rabid persistence, one banker (Gerald Divers at Exchange Bank) finally gave him a shot, and with a $13,000 loan Malio purchased Tropics. He later changed the name to Malio’s.
Early on, Malio and his wife Shirley, whom he met while in high school, had trouble sleeping. How would bills get paid? Would the business survive? “We put everything into it,” Shirley said. We sold our home. I even went back to work (as a teacher).
It didn’t take long for Malio’s to turn the proverbial corner. By the mid-1970s, it had become a Tampa hotspot and it stayed that way until the day the final steak was served. The keys to success were simple: great food and great service. At Malio’s, everyone felt important. The affable Malio wouldn’t have it any other way. “Malio just has the type of personality that draws you in,” Shirley said. “He makes you feel at home and I think that was a big part of the draw at the restaurant.”
Now 62, Malio says he’s enjoying his retirement. He’s still active, still enjoys meeting new friends and chatting up old ones. After having put so much into the restaurant, Malio wasn’t sure how life would go after the doors to his restaurant were shut. But, he recently confessed, “I’m really having fun.”
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What did your parents do for a living?
They were in the restaurant business … Carmine’s Italian Restaurant, which was on Buffalo Avenue, now Martin Luther King. My father died when I was 12, so my mother ran everything.
I know your roots are deep here in Tampa. How many restaurants total were there in your family?
Four of them. Malio’s, Carmine’s, Iavarone’s and Market on 7th.
What were you doing before Malio’s?
I worked at Carmine’s. I tried to go into the clothing business but the restaurant business was in my blood. I bought Malio’s when it was Tropics Steakhouse and started buying all the property around it. I was 25 years old.
You opened a restaurant at 25? That’s impressive.
I had to. I had two kids and a wife to support. She was teaching school and she was the just the best.
Tell us about the early mishaps.
Oh, early mishaps (chuckling). The best one took place one Thanksgiving. We ran out of turkey within an hour. But we had turkeys in the freezer, we just couldn’t find them. The cook couldn’t even find them and boy did I have a lot of angry, angry people.
What did you serve them instead?
Steak. And as a matter of fact, I told my chef off and he left that night. He walked right out the door and I had to cook.
You cook, too?
I thought I did. Anyway, that was a big one. And can you imagine at the end of the night we found all the turkeys?
At what point did you realize that Malio’s would really work?
After about three months. (At first) my wife and I would sit outside and watch the cars go by.
It must have been rough. Restaurants often come and go.
That’s right. We were definitely scared at times. But once people that grew up here started coming in, things began working out great. My wife was wonderful. She worked as a teacher during the week and helped clean the restaurant or work as a cashier on the weekends.
Did you ever envision Malio’s would become an institution?
I never thought about it. I just worked hard. You have to take care of business and take care of your kids. Work through fear. I was in there day and night.
Malio’s had a reputation for treating everyone like friends and family. Was that your philosophy?
Absolutely. And I always took real good care of my employees. I love my employees and I still go and visit them. That’s always how my mother was. She taught me that there was no reason to be a jerk. She would cook, clean, bartend … she did it all and I learned everything from her.
On average, how many days / nights were you there a week?
Day and night for 10 years.
How much input did you have with the menu?
There was a restaurant called Pepe’s in town and a great guy owned it. He let me use eight items off his menu. I just changed the name. I loved his food and I gave it a little Italian twist.
Who were some of the famous people that ate there?
George Steinbrenner, all the Yankees, the DeBartolo family, Dino Spanos, Philip Orsino, Bill Currie, John McKay, Lou Piniella, Mariah Carey (who once sang there), Rod Stewart, Gerald Divers, John Travolta, Burt Reynolds, Johnny Bench, Wade Boggs and Doug Williams to name a few.
Now that you’re retired, how do you pass the time?
Right now? I don’t do anything. I hang out with my wife. I go see my daughter in Washington state. We just went on a cruise, which I’d never been on in my life. About 40 couples went with us. We had a great time.
What’s the most difficult thing about running a restaurant?
Time. I watched Chris Sullivan and the other Outback guys develop that restaurant and now look what they’ve achieved. They’re very smart. They started at Steak & Ale and they did one heck of a job. All I knew how to do was stay here and work here … I didn’t know how to do anymore. And that’s when steak was going down. The government was saying it was bad for you. I went from 85% steak sales to about 50%. It was crazy and those guys just took off. Now they have about 500 locations.
Were there times you didn’t feel like you were going to make it?
Oh yeah. You go through periods of lapses. I’ve been scared. I used to be small and there would be a wait to get in … it was great. But when I got big, I got huge and if there was a recession, we’d feel that.
If you were a guest at Malio’s, what would you order?
I’d do the prime rib and pasta.
I’m a filet person myself.
Well you know, that’s the safest thing you can eat at a steakhouse.
Yes, it’s consistently good. And I’m sure that being in the business you know you’re only as good as your last meal.
Boy you got that right.
What was the most underrated item on the menu?
Rack of lamb.
What’s the strangest thing anyone found in their food?
We had a huge table (the McKay table) that sat eight people. One night a possum fell right on the table. It ran through the dining room and we were chasing it for five minutes. People were running out of the restaurant. A few people asked for possum soup for weeks afterwards.
What’s your advice to someone who tells you they want to be in the business?
If you love it, do it. If you don’t love it, don’t think it’s glamorous. And let me tell you, I don’t know how you keep a woman in that business. I was very fortunate.
Where do you like to eat?
We’re sitting here (Iavarone’s). I like Carmine’s, Bern’s. We eat out about four times a week.
When’s the last time you had fast food?
Last night. McDonald’s. I get a double cheeseburger and french fries. Derek taught me how to eat McDonald’s. You put french fries in the burger. It’s delicious.
Who created your red sauce?
What made it so good?
The right ingredients. The right mixture.
What’s the flavor? Is it spicy or sweet?
It’s spicy. It has tomato, olive oil, garlic, basil … it’s the best.
Didn’t George Steinbrenner order 30 bottles before you closed?
That’s right. He and his wife love the sauce, so I spent the entire day in the kitchen to deliver him 10 quarts that night.
What do you love most about South Tampa?
The location. It’s easy to get everywhere. I love the airports, the mall. I grew up in Seminole Heights about a mile from downtown. I love it here.
A lot seems to have developed since I moved here in 2000.
You’ve been here for the huge growth.
People say that location is key. How much do you think your location played into your success?
My location was key for sure. I chose Dale Mabry because back in those days it was called “the strip.” Everything was there.
Is there anything you wish you would have done differently?
I never would have gotten so big. Not my waistline. I’m talking about the building.
What made you decide to close down after 35 years.
A lot of money.
Tell me about the night before closing. Did you lose any sleep?
We all had a car drive us up and we just got tipsy and had a good time.
How about when you locked the doors for the last time?
It didn’t bother me because I knew it was the best decision for my family and my wife. And we had our time.
How about when Malio’s was bulldozed?
I was gone. I hopped a plane and went to visit my daughter in Washington. I haven’t spent three weeks anywhere in my life. I had a great time visiting my grandkids.
Now that you’ve had time to reflect, do you regret the decision at all?
No way. I’m the happiest guy in the world. I’m lucky and I have it all.
What’s the next chapter for you?
That’s up to Derek now. He’s had some opportunities and he’s looking into some things. But he isn’t going to rush into anything. If he does get back into that business it’s going to be a lifestyle change.
How much has your father influenced you?
Throughout my entire life. He’s taught me everything and continues to teach me new things everyday.
Seeing the struggles your father went through with the business and knowing the work was difficult, why would you want to be in the same profession?
I grew up around it and it’s just always what I’ve wanted to do.
If you do decide to carry on your father’s legacy, what kind of place have you envisioned owning?
A cozy little place with just a couple tables. It’s only open for dinner, that way it’s less time consuming. My dad’s place was so big and he had to be there all the time. It would have been tough to change Malio’s. He was such a big part of it. So this would be something totally different and new.
What’s the greatest trait you got from your father?
How to treat people. You have to make everyone feel like a superstar.
I know you lived in San Francisco for a year, but do you consider yourself a Tampa guy for life?
Yeah, I’m probably a Tampa guy for life.
What was your role at Malio’s?
I was a manager, but I’ve done a little bit of everything. My favorite job was valeting cars. I’d worked at Malio’s since I was 20.
What was your greatest triumph?
I would have to say keeping the restaurant going and maintaining its greatness
What are some of your favorite foods?
I like steak, french fries and all types of ice cream.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I really can’t say. I don’t like to make plans for that far off in the future.