Thomas Musarra has spent his whole life in the kitchen.
But after leaving the rigors of a 37-year career as a chef to spend more time with family amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Musarra realized he didn’t want to go back to the grueling hours and conditions that being a high-end chef required. But he still wanted to share his passion for food.
“You’re working 7 days straight, no holidays, no weekends, for like $100 a week,” Musarra, 54, told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “This past year showed me that I want to be able to spend more time with my family.”
The solution came in the form of a recently vacated café inside of Bob Lee’s Tire Company in St. Petersburg located at 1631 4th St. N.
“I’ve been getting my tires done at Bob Lee’s since I moved here in 2009,” Musarra said. “When I noticed the little café that had been there was not reopening, I asked the owner if he was looking for someone to take over and he was.”
After an interview and two weeks of waiting, the newly named Orange Belt Café was his.
Musarra made the difficult decision to hold off on opening the doors to his new restaurant because of the pandemic
“We were going to open earlier but then the pandemic unfolded,” Musarra said. “We wanted to wait until everything settled down.”
The Orange Belt Café officially opened its doors in February 2021, and while it appeared that the worst of the pandemic was over, Musarra was still struggling with its impact.
“It was scary, I didn’t want to bring anything home to my family,” Musarra said. “Vaccinations weren’t available yet, but as soon as they were I got vaccinated to protect myself and my family.”
One thing the pandemic did not impact however, was the café’s success.
“We were not prepared for the volume of customers that we got in the beginning,” Musarra said. “I had to have my wife and daughter come in to help out.”
Growing up in New Jersey, Musarra started cooking when he was only 6. By 11, he was making his own ravioli, and by 13 he was working at a French restaurant. For the Orange Belt Café menu, Musarra recreated some of his favorite sandwiches and flavors from his childhood with the technique he acquired from his time at the French Culinary Institute in New York. Many of which he was unable to find when he moved to St. Petersburg.
“We have true New York style sandwiches,” Musarra said. “It’s all the stuff I love to eat.”
Patrons can indulge in a number of sandwiches including the Nola Muffuletta, the Super Italian and Musarra’s personal favorite, the Turkey Bacon Ranch Club, all before their tires are changed.
One of the café’s best-selling sandwiches is its authentic, pork-packed Cuban. Filled with house made slow roasted pork, Cuban ham, Salchicon salami, house pickles, Swiss cheese and spicy mustard, Musarra deems this sandwich a must try.
For those craving something sweet, there are a variety of house made desserts and pastries, including Florida citrus cake, key lime pie, chocolate croissants, apple turnovers and sticky sweet cinnamon buns.
The Orange Belt Café isn’t just a snack station for those awaiting tire changes. It includes a small dining area as well as carry-out options. The restaurant is open 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. on weekdays and 7:30 a.m.-1 p.m. on weekends.
The menu and more information can be found via @orangebeltcafe on Facebook.
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