First course: politics

Restaurants for politicians to see and be seen.

In Tampa politics, there is only one "Decider," and it is not the president of the United States. It is David Agliano, the 52-year-old manager of Valencia Gardens restaurant on Kennedy Boulevard, just west of downtown.

For the 300 or so people who show up at the front doors of the Tampa landmark for lunch each day, it is Agliano who decides where they sit. And on any given day, a dozen or so of those folks are politicians. Recently, the main dining room hosted current Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and her predecessor, Dick Greco, seated at different tables.

It is Agliano who decides who sits where — in the bar area, in the original dining room in the back of the restaurant or, if you arrive at the right time, the main dining room. It is the main dining room, just to the right of the lobby, that seems to be the most popular political haunt. Politicians often can be seen going from table to table, greeting other elected officials or glad-handing fundraisers or business leaders. New candidates looking to launch their campaigns need only one lunch at Valencia Gardens with a well-known politician or consultant to set tongues wagging, and nobody's tongue wags more than Agliano's.

"I'm probably the worst rumormonger out here," he says with a laugh one recent morning.

After showing off one of the coolest political trophies around — a Borsalino hat stamped on the inside "Made expressly for Nick Nuccio," the legendary Tampa mayor whose name dots dozens of locations in the city — Agliano lets you in on a secret: The powerful don't have dibs on the main room.

"I had a politician who called me up one day and chewed me out because she was seated in the back dining room," he recalls. The key to getting a seat in the vaunted main room is not status, it's timing, he reveals. Agliano tells the hostesses to fill the back room and bar first. Those rooms are farther from the entrance, and it takes more time for the hostesses to go back and forth once the lunch rush hits.

The restaurateur recalls reserving a table in the main room for only one customer: the late mob lawyer Frank Ragano, who ate lunch and dinner at Valencia four times a week and who loved his alcove table in the back corner of the main room. Everyone else pretty much gets whatever is open, although Agliano has an impish look on his face when he explains how he loves to seat competing or feuding politicos "as close to each other as possible."

Whether it is O'Keefe's in Clearwater or Atlanta Bread Co. in downtown St. Petersburg or any of a small handful of other eateries frequented by elected officials, Tampa Bay politics travels on its stomach. In Tampa, that means breakfast at West Tampa Sandwich Shop and lunch at Valencia.

"Those are my second homes," says Victor DiMaio, a Tampa Democratic political consultant. A busy campaigner can take meetings at breakfast, lunch and even two or three coffee shop visits a day. "It's hard to have the conversation without having that Cuban coffee in front of you."

Here's a quick roundup of some other political dining spots in Tampa Bay:

West Tampa Sandwich Shop, 3904 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa. The walls are adorned with signed photos of everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Lawton Chiles, who reportedly adored the garbanzo bean soup here. One panel of photos shows a visit by then-candidate John Kerry in 2004 and Tipper Gore in 2000.

This tiny coffee and sandwich shop is the pulse of Hispanic West Tampa politics. The joint is remarkably noisy. Pedro Barrionuevo (everyone calls him Willie) has owned the place with his wife, Nidia, for 15 years, cranking out Cuban sandwiches and toast and coffee for the powerful and the not-so-powerful.

The highlight of a West Tampa visit, if you come early enough, is a regular table of politically astute retirees, often featuring former sheriff's spokesman and stand-up comedian Jack Espinosa. Some of those guys show up as early as 4:30 a.m., when the doors open for the day.

O'Keefe's, 1219 S. Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater. This Irish-themed restaurant has a few key ingredients for local politicians: Its sports-bar-style menu features quick and affordable burgers and simple meals, while its location is about a mile from the courthouse and county government offices.

Atlanta Bread Co., 179 First Ave. N., St. Petersburg. Often, the dining experience is less about the meal than it is about convenience. A quick cup of coffee and a Danish or simple sandwich is secondary to the fact that Atlanta Bread is only a short walk away from City Hall or the St. Petersburg Times or just about any other office in St. Pete. Plus, it has a nifty private room in the back, just perfect for a campaign workers meeting.

Village Inn Pancake House, 215 N. Dale Mabry, Tampa, and 9107 Fourth St. N., St Petersburg. In politics, it ain't cool (and can even border on the illegal) to do campaigning at your government place of business. So breakfast out is a great solution for meetings, and these two Village Inns often host local officials, especially the Tampa location, as it is just south of I-275 and easily accessible for those having to cross the Howard Frankland Bridge.

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