Ask the Locals: Dr. Gary Mormino, Florida's historian

click to enlarge Ask the Locals: Dr. Gary Mormino, Florida's historian - Photo by Heidi Kurpiela
Photo by Heidi Kurpiela
Ask the Locals: Dr. Gary Mormino, Florida's historian


Dr. Gary Mormino is a history professor, newspaper columnist, highly regarded author, avid gardener, Italian foodie and venerable expert on anything and everything Florida. He is currently the scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council.

An Old Northeast resident, Mormino spent 35 years in the history department at the University of South Florida in Tampa and St. Petersburg. Though he retired in 2012, Mormino, 67, still teaches a class on food and history at the St. Pete campus. The class involves trips to old Cuban bakeries in West Tampa and Mazzaro’s Italian Market in St. Pete, where Mormino regularly shops for bread, wine, sausage and cheese.

Widely regarded as Florida’s leading historian, Mormino has been tapped by The New Yorker, the New York Times and NPR to weigh in on Florida-centric stories.

Dubbed “Mister Florida” by close friends and colleagues, Mormino arrived in Tampa in the 1970s. He was raised in the Midwest and got his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

During his long and storied tenure at USF, Mormino penned four history books, including The Immigrant World of Ybor City, for which he earned the Theodore Saloutos Prize for Outstanding Book in Ethnic-Immigration History and Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams, recipient of the Florida Historical Society’s Charlton Tebeau Prize. In 2003, he and colleague Ray Arsenault founded the Florida Studies program at USF St. Pete.

An unabashed technology laggard, Mormino’s reputation for living in the past (he avoids computers and cell phones) and his Mark Twain-ian ability to tell a good story, have endeared him to USF students and faculty. In 2012, Florida Trend featured him as one of their Florida Icons.

His columns have appeared in the Tampa Bay Times, Orlando Sentinel, Miami Herald and Tampa Tribune.

The restaurant where the chef knows his name: Z Grille. “My wife and I know Zack Gross, the very eccentric, very tattooed, very extraordinary chef and owner. His fish dishes are amazing and we love his famous deviled eggs.”

Best mom and pop chow: Arco-Iris in Tampa. “The attention to detail they give black beans and rice is amazing. Every grain of rice is perfectly arranged. On the back of the menu is a whole page of Chinese fried rice dishes. At first it’s disconcerting because you think it’s a Cuban restaurant, but Chinese fried rice is not as crazy as it might think considering the history of Tampa. The Chinese and the Cubans arrived in Ybor around the same time.”

The closest you’ll get to Italy in St. Pete: Mazzaro’s Italian Market. “It’s one of the greatest Italian food emporiums I’ve seen in the U.S. The cheese, bread and wine selection is first rate. I teach a class on the history of food and I like to take the students to Mazzaro’s. It’s always fun to see them react to how mozzarella is made.”

Best place to meet a student for coffee: Kahwa South. “It was a popular place to defend a Master’s thesis. Once a student even brought pastries that her Ukrainian grandmother had made for the thesis committee.”

Favorite professorial watering hole: A Taste For Wine on Central Avenue. “A lot of my colleagues are wine drinkers, so we like to meet there. You can sit out on the balcony with a glass of cabernet and people-watch. The owner is quite gregarious and outgoing.”

Best place to flash a green thumb: Twigs & Leaves Nursery. “I remember when I discovered the connection between monarch butterflies and milkweed. They had Mexican milkweed there so I picked up some and now I’ve got tons of monarchs.”

Best place to take a sweet tooth: La Segunda Central Bakery. “Seriously, go there and immediately order a guava tart. Make sure you get the one made with phyllo dough. It’s amazing with a café con leche in the morning.”

Best place to buy local greens: The Worden Farm booth at the Saturday Morning Market. “The lines all morning are absolutely amazing. They have a big farm in Manatee County. I love beets and collard greens. Kale of course is the latest rage. Worden has it all.”

Favorite pieces of history: The Italian Club and Centro Asturiano de Tampa in Ybor City. “I have a soft spot for the Italian Club. It’s where I did so many of my interviews when I lived in Tampa. Both of these are stunningly beautiful buildings. One of the great challenges in Tampa will be what to do with these buildings in 50 years.”

Best birding in the Bay: Fort De Soto Park. “Every year in April we go to see the bird migrations. The birds get very hungry when the mulberry ripens. Birders know what I’m talking about.”

Favorite outdoor adventure: Kayaking the Upper Hillsborough River. “You’re in the middle of metropolitan Tampa. It’s hard to imagine it can be that rural. Pristine is the wrong word, but it’s pretty close.”

Favorite St. Pete preservation project: The Snell House. “My office was in this building. It was slated to be torn down before it was moved to the USF St. Pete campus. When it was moved [in 1993], one of my colleagues rode on top of the house like it was a ship.”

Best blast from the past: Lighthouse Books. “It’s in an old bungalow on 1st Avenue North where you can find some great vintage books and postcards. Michael Slicker, who’s been around St. Pete for a long time, owns the store. It’s a real find, definitely worth seeking out.”

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