TAMPA – Richard Gonzmarth is a legendary restaurateur from a family of legendary restaurateurs.
He is the fourth generation co-owner of the iconic Columbia Restaurant with his brother Casey Gonzmart Sr. Founded in 1905 by their grandfather Casimiro Hernandez Sr., the famous Ybor City is the oldest restaurant in Florida.
Richard Gonzmarth expanded the family business by opening seven Columbia outlets and seven other restaurants, including Ulele along the Riverwalk and a revived Goody-Goody Burgers in Hyde Park Village.
He recently resigned from the Hillsborough Tourism Development Board after 29 years on the board, saying he was cutting back on his day-to-day responsibilities in order to spend more time with his wife, Melanie, with whom he had lived for nearly 49 years. Daughter Andrea Gonzmart Williams, 43, is taking on a bigger role in the family business.
Gonzmarth, 69, told the Tampa Bay Times about growing up at the original Columbia Restaurant, where late Tampa mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr. often dined. This is the first part of a two-part conversation. The second part is scheduled for June 5th.
• • •
What do you remember about your grandfather, Casimiro Hernandez Sr.?
I was, I think, 8 years old when my grandfather died. But at 3.5 years old, I went to Columbia for dinner on Fridays. My mother (Adela Hernandez Gonzmart), because we are Catholics, had to eat seafood. She was an excellent cook, but she didn’t cook fish. And I went to the kitchen, wandering around. I felt comfortable, I knew the waiters. When I entered the cooler, I saw all the red snapper, trout, sea bass, pompano, even live softshell crabs, with their heads and eyes looking at me, and I turned around, got scared and ran away.
My grandfather said, “What’s wrong with you, baby?” (I said:) The fish was about to bite me. And he accepted me, and that was my first lesson. He told me how to tell if a fish is fresh by looking into its eyes for clarity. And the gills should be dark moist red. And then on the flesh, he said, when you come in, I want you to press on the flesh; it must be solid.
(He told me:) “And every Friday when you come, I want you to report that the fish is fresh.” Look, at 3.5 I thought I was a big boy. Although we built a new kitchen in 2001, this door still stands. Every day when I pass by, I remember this. My earliest memory. My first education.
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• • •
What else have you learned from him?
I remember my grandfather saying that Spanish bean soup is too salty. The chef said he could fix it and my grandfather argued and said, “No, do it again.” What I learned from this is that you are only as good as your last meal.
• • •
What is your favorite food in Colombia?
Depends on the day, moment and occasion. I like palomilla steak. And the palomilla steak was not on the menu, nor was the ropa vieja, because it was peasant food. But what’s happening is that people don’t think that way anymore, so I put it on the menu. I like boliche, roast beef stuffed with chorizo. It brings back memories. When I eat, I think about special moments. That’s what I like. I love chicken and yellow rice. This is my choice many times. I like it with what I call RG 1953 salad. It’s a 1905 salad with just lettuce, tomatoes and dressing. I love how the taste of garlic, vinegar and oil mixes together when I eat it.
• • •
Did you work in a restaurant as a child?
My first job was when I was 12 years old, I was a dishwasher. My dad didn’t want me to do it. He wanted me to work up front, doing something I wasn’t interested in – cleaning the bottoms of chairs. I quit three times that day. My brother was my curator. He was 17.
But I wanted to wash the dishes. I loved to cook; I learned to cook at the age of 6, started washing dishes and then started working on the line at lunchtime with some legendary chefs. It is important to understand that (the dishwasher) uses the most expensive equipment in charge of sanitizing every tableware, plate and glass that customers touch.
Due to loss and waste, we will spend $15,000 a month worth of glasses and cutlery there … we lose and break $15,000 to $20,000 a month. The waiters put them on a tray, put so much that they could not carry it away. You will see how I walk and take pictures. It’s just not safe.
• • •
There was a story about a Columbia University employee who spilled a cup of coffee on the lap of Tampa mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr. What happened?
It was Ferdy Pacheco who dropped a cup of coffee on him and he was scared to death. (Pacheco, who died in 2017, became famous as a writer, artist and ringside doctor for heavyweight boxing great Muhammad Ali.)
(Trafficante) was actually a kind man. He came, I knew him as a boy. Everyone respected him. He often had lunch and dinner, and his daughter told me that Columbia was his favorite restaurant.
• • •
Tell another story about Trafficant.
There was once, I think I was 19 years old. He entered. I worked at the front door, and lunch in those days at Columbia was very, very slow. And he came in and said, “Richard, I need a quiet table to talk business. I don’t want anyone near me.” “Yes, sir, Mr. Trafficante.
I seated him at table 104. A few minutes later a gentleman enters. I sat him down at table 62 and he waited a bit and said, you know, I really don’t like this table; I want to read the newspaper. So, he goes out into the skylight (patio room) at a table directly across from Santo Trafficante. He was with a gentleman named Henry Disidue. And the guy opens the newspaper.
He just sits there. And in less than 15 minutes, Santo came up to me and said: “I told you that I don’t want anyone to sit next to me. This is the FBI and I can’t talk business.” Holy prayer!