Growing up in G-town

During the bleak 1970s in Gulfport, some crazy Italians 
helped keep things interesting.

click to enlarge CAN’T BEAT THE PRICES: A Fair’s menu ad from 1978. - Gulfport Gabber
Gulfport Gabber
CAN’T BEAT THE PRICES: A Fair’s menu ad from 1978.

Some of my earliest memories are from Gulfport — at a house by the marina and a pizzeria just outside the city limits on 22nd Avenue South, off 49th Street. Today a Subway franchise occupies the building where my father’s restaurant, Fair's Pizza, used to be.

Vito Garisto, a fair-skinned and feisty Southern Italian from Calabria, turned 50 in 1972 and had been laid off a year before from a military weapons factory in Bridgeport, Conn. Papa, as we called him, was a generous, affectionate dad, but an alcoholic who spun out of control in drunken rages and abused my mother and siblings.

Noting a scarcity of New York-style Italian food in Florida, my father opened up two modest pizza and sub shops. One, near what is now St. Petersburg College on Fifth Avenue North, employed our frizzy-haired cousin from Connecticut, also named Vito, was enlisted to work with him — so they fittingly called the joint Vito’s Pizza. Things went south when Vito One got in a heated argument with Vito Two over a bogus accusation that the nephew had made passes at my mother. Their falling-out was the beginning of the end of Vito’s Pizza.

As that chapter closed, my parents' other restaurant in Gulfport became more and more successful. My parents bought a lovely five-bedroom house with turquoise trim, in the lot next to the marina on Coronado Way South. They also bought a 1,000-ish-square-foot restaurant called Fair's Pizza (after a previous owner). The spot was a hit, especially among shaggy-haired, bell-bottom-wearing teens. 

“Fair’s Pizza was my family’s favorite takeout,” wrote Joe Hickman, son of late civic leader Catherine Hickman, on the Gulfport Grown Facebook page. “My mother grew up in Brooklyn, and swore by that food. I learned the proper way to eat New York-style pizza with Fair’s pizza. And I can still picture and taste the spaghetti and meatballs.” Joe’s mom, incidentally, founded the Gulfport Players, the town’s Little League and other organizations — the town’s theater is named after her.

As I recall, the pizza at Fair's was just OK. The steak hoagies, however, were something special — thin steaks served with fried onions and mozzarella cheese on toasted rolls from Mike’s Bakery.

The restaurant, especially the kitchen, could get unbearably hot. Terrazzo floors, window-unit A/C helped keep the restaurant cooler, as did some loud wall fans, which, along with the fake wood paneling by the order window, gave the place a low-frills feel. The dining area had 1950s-style chrome tables and chairs, a pool table and jukebox. I whiled away hours there playing the Elton John Pinball Wizard pinball game and “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” on the jukebox. I can’t hear “Black Dog” by Led Zepplin without thinking about Fair's.

Pot smoking was prevalent in the back alleys around the restaurant. Local fishermen brought in pounds of weed and sold them at the M&M bar next door (now a liquor store). Side note: The M&M turned away African-Americans, reinforcing Gulfport’s racist reputation at the time.

For a year or so, while my mother helped run the place, Fair's was a hub of activity in the strangely desolate retirement haven that was Gulfport. My mom smiled and greeted customers with her Italian accent. The restaurant attracted all types, and the spot was even robbed once. My father chased out everyone he deemed suspicious or just didn’t like, from barefoot hippies to random black guys. He’d run after some customers in his dirty white apron and sweat-stained V-neck T-shirt, sometimes wielding a cleaver and shouting, “Stay offa mah property, you sumbitch!” One dispute ended with a broken arm — his.

During the Fair's era, my parents’ marital difficulties led us to split our lives between two houses — one in Clearwater, and the Gulfport house on Coronado Way.

The Coronado house became party central. Itinerant teens moved in for months at a time. My father’s best buddy and roommate, a lanky police lieutenant named Frank Hanson, ignored the plumes of pot smoke that filled the living room as he sauntered to the dining room table to knock back shots with my father.

Wherever we were living, I was the pain-in-the-ass younger sister. My perpetual babysitter/sister, Teresa, was a Cue-ette in the Pasadena Pool League, bartended and shot pool competitively where she worked, at Nel’s (where O’Maddy’s is now) — and a 5-foot-tall firecracker. She dropped out of Boca Ciega High to attend the Gulfport Beauty School, where the chamber of commerce and the Gulfport Grind are now.

Teresa lived the longest in Gulfport. She got married at 18 at Holy Name Catholic Church, and a reception followed at the Sons of Italy Hall across the street from Fair's. Her marriage lasted only a couple of years. Her then husband, Chris Harker, is a Gulfport native and recently shared what it was like to grow up in G-town.

“When I was little, 8 or 9, Gulfport’s waterfront was a collection of teenagers and mullet fisherman, and by night it was the fisherman’s domain,” remembered Chris, now a videographer. “By my teens, the town and Beach Boulevard were in decline.”

The ’70s were indeed Gulfport’s dark ages, and things got darker after my parents’ divorce. I saw my father less and less after he married my stepmother, an Irish-American bartender named Dottie with a bottle-blonde bouffant. She was half-owner of a beach bar on Shore Boulevard. Vito and Dottie tooled around in a ginormous white Cadillac with red leather interior that stuck to the back of my legs. Dottie and my father drank nonstop, and business began to slump, especially after they sunk thousands of dollars into an ill-fated wine and beer bar. On the upside, I became a champion-level Pong player while hanging out at the M&M, the Blinker and other Gulfport watering holes.

In spite of it all, Gulfport has mostly pleasant memories for me. I’d tool around on my 3-speed bike, whirring past pretty bungalows landscaped with sea grapes and painted in pastels. While my father frequented the bars on Shore Drive, I loitered on Gulfport Beach’s pre-ergonomic playground, which had one of those metal spinning things that resulted in broken teeth and limbs. I’d save up my change for Mickey Mouse Popsicles from the ice cream stand outside the Casino.

I looked around for photos from the Fair's era, but found nothing. My mother said, “We were too busy working to take pictures.”

The Gulfport Historical Museum likewise has no clippings or photos from the 1970s, or of Fair's Pizza, for that matter. It was a murky transitional time for both my family and the city.

Fair's Pizza closed in 1980. In its place now is a corporate sandwich chain, coincidentally founded in Milford, Conn. — the town where I was born. 

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