Its roster of star-studded regulars reads like a Who's Who of the town's most powerful people — among them George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, and Lou Piniella, manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. And at least three of Tampa's professional sports teams can be traced directly to the warren of dark, cool rooms that make up Malio's Steak House.
One of Tampa's legendary restaurants, Malio's has been catering to the city's elite for 35 years from its catbird spot on S. Dale Mabry. Its namesake is Malio Iavarone, whose big Tampa family operates a number of popular local restaurants.
Its straightforward American fare is light years from the culinary cutting edge, and over many years, its kitchen's creativity seems to have ebbed. I sampled a number of dishes and found them uniformly fresh, if simple and dated — predictable, boring salads; plain grilled steak; grouper without any surprises. Still, maybe that predictability, coupled with consistently friendly, efficient service, is part of what attracts its devoted clientele.
Steinbrenner is Malio's biggest fan.
"I love the Italian food, number one. The family all works there, it's a family affair," Steinbrenner said in a recent telephone interview from his office at Legends Field, where he oversees the Yankees. Steinbrenner is a longtime Tampa resident, and most of that time he has also been a regular at Malio's.
"It's an institution in Tampa for sports figures, known all over the country," Steinbrenner continued. "It is noisy but fun, [it's a] fun place to go, always has been, always will be. That's what sports people like, [they] like to know the owners. There's lots of ego involved in owning sports franchises — Vince Namoli (managing partner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays) can tell you that. Everybody that comes to town here wants to go to Malio's. They know it's a sports restaurant supreme, as good as there is anywhere you just like it because they're relaxed; you can have a drink and sit and talk, it's relaxed, the owner comes over, and you can talk in confidence."
Steinbrenner said he negotiates sports deals in a back room. "We love to meet in that room," he said.
The restaurant could be considered the birthplace of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers National Football League team, the Tampa Bay Lightning pro hockey team and the now-defunct Tampa Bay Rowdies pro soccer team, because the first meetings about how to win big-league franchises for them occurred upon its premises, according to Tom McEwen, retired sports editor of The Tampa Tribune and yet another high-profile, longtime diner.
McEwen related in a telephone interview how the hockey franchise developed from a chance 1990 encounter among the heavy-hitters dining there. Malio approached McEwen's table and whispered the classic line, "There's somebody here you need to meet." It was hockey Hall of Famer Phil Esposito, who, after the franchise was granted in 1991, became the Tampa Bay Lightning's president and general manager.
McEwen remembered also that Malio's was the last place he saw Santo Trafficante Jr. before the reputed mobster died of natural causes in 1987.
Autographed pictures testify to the restaurant's extraordinary crowd: boxers Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard; baseball great Derek Jeter; local boys-made-good Wade Boggs, Tony La Russa and Rick Casares; Bucs players, like Kenyatta Walker, whose SUV was burglarized of $72,000 worth of jewelry and stereo equipment in the parking lot last year.
Anything but glamorous, the restaurant's one-story building resembles a concrete bunker, but it's not depressing: Its cool, dark interior and big, black leather booths inspire a chummy intimacy. In back is a lounge area, adjacent to a new "smoking bar" patio Malio installed when Florida outlawed indoor smoking, graced by a $20,000 landscaped, goldfish pond.
With all the hobnobbing, flirting and deal making, the food seems almost an afterthought, but I enjoyed my meals there for the same reason Steinbrenner enjoys his — the restaurant is basic, low-key and user-friendly. You sort of feel as if you're sitting in someone's living room — in 1970.
I started with artichoke hearts ($5.95), halved, sautéed and sprinkled with Parmesan, just average; on another trip, I tried the plain escargot ($5.95), lazy in butter and served plain in a metal baking dish without flourishes like pastry or spinach.
The handmade loaf of French bread, however, was excellent — crisp crust and cottony interior, topped with real, cold butter.
One night, I ordered chicken soup and got a cup of so-so broth floating noodles and vegetables. The garden salad that came with my entrée was one of those boring piles of iceberg and romaine lettuce, a few shreds of carrot, orange tomato slices and one ring of purple onion. Among the restaurant's few concessions to more modern culinary trends was a mediocre, Asian-inspired, low-fat salad dressing.
A dish of fettucine Alfredo ($10.45) was cooked exactly al dente, but the sauce needed more cheesy oomph, and its presentation was flat. Entrées were straightforward steaks, veal dishes and seafood. If you like steak, but prefer it with some frills, jazz it up by ordering Cajun style, with a sauce made of rosemary, garlic and cream, or with a Marsala wine, shallot and mushroom topping.
One night, I tried the restaurant's specialty, grouper Malio (market price), fish baked in butter, white wine, lemon juice and topped with white lump crabmeat, potatoes, red pepper, mushrooms and red onion. It was fresh, delicious and attractive, but drowned in butter, and short on expensive crab meat. Rack of lamb ($23.95) was delectable and cooked exactly right to medium rare, but was marred by an inane accompaniment — green mint jelly.
Desserts were time-honored standards like peanut-butter pie ($5.95), which set me swooning with a lovely, gooey and nutty filling paired with a crunchy, crispy crust; a traditional, tart Key lime pie ($5.95) was just average.
Demerit: When the bill came, I was surprised that it failed to show the 12-percent "service charge" the restaurant adds to each tab. The service charge is listed at the bottom of the menu, but I missed it, and probably other people do, too. It should be clearly listed on the bill.
The restaurant's regulars obviously relish its fresh, but plain and predictable American cuisine. And for those of us who like to star-watch while we dine, Malio's is the local equivalent of our own Milky Way.
Food critic Sara Kennedy dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. Contact her at 813-248-8888, ext. 116, or [email protected]. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.