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Vintage St. Pete: El Cap – Sixty years of burgers and beers

Bill DeYoung

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El Cap, at 3500 4th Street N., opened under that name in 1958. Photo: Bill DeYoung

Mary Jean Bonfili on the cover of St. Pete Magazine, 2010.

When Pennsylvania transplants Steve and Rose Bonfili bought a tiny 4th Street tavern called El Cap in 1963, and transformed it into a stop-n-go sandwich shop, they were taking a risk – albeit a calculated one.

Recently widened, 4th was the most-traveled commercial thoroughfare in St. Petersburg at the time, and El Cap was located midway between the city’s two biggest tourist attractions, Sunken Gardens and the Florida Wildlife Ranch, a stone’s throw in either direction.

Nearing 65 years old now, El Cap has been renovated and expanded, yet it’s one of just a handful of St. Pete restaurants seemingly untouched by time. Although stacked ham sandwiches were the top menu item in the early ‘60s, El Cap made its reputation on hamburgers, made fresh and one-by-one, with cold beer and neighborly camaraderie on the side.

People get attached to El Cap, customers and staffers alike. Johnny Johnson is the prep guy – he’s been hand-forming ground beef patties since 1992. “Thirty years and two million burgers,” he says proudly. His all-time record, he says, is 2,300 burgers in one day, for a media event around a decade ago.

Burger-maker Johnny Johnson at work. Photo: Bill DeYoung

“It’s the best burger in the world, right here,” Johnson says. “Every burger is made by me.”

Bartender Larry Chopard has worked at El Cap for nearly 30 years. Co-owners Tara Mattiacci and Cynthia Nally, both of whom started as servers, have been there almost as long. “I think we all feel a personal attachment to it,” says Mattiacci.

They were hired by Frank Bonfili, Steve and Rose’s son, who took over management in the early 1980s. Over time, Frank and his wife Mary Jean expanded the physical space by buying next door properties, and transformed El Cap into a sports bar, perhaps the first such establishment in St. Pete.

He was front of house; she managed the kitchen.

Frank, a baseball nut, covered the walls with pennants, photos and other memorabilia, and installed several TVs for at-the-bar game watching. Every item on the El Cap menu was given catchy sports-centric names.

Frank Bonfili behind the bar, 1990s. Photo provided.

Frank Bonfili was the kind of guy, they say, who greeted every customer personally as they walked in the door. He was outgoing and gregarious, and argued louder than anyone that Tampa Bay should have its own MLB team.

He bought season tickets for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ inaugural year, to begin in the spring of 1998. He and Mary Jean agreed to start opening El Cap on Sundays, because – he pronounced – with 81 home games, there were going to be a lot of hungry people in town.

Frank Bonfili died of a heart attack on March 13, 1997. He was 46.

A bit of history. The little building at 3500 4th Street North originated in 1948; it was, most likely, a pub some believe was called Bruno’s (records from this time are difficult to find). In 1958, one Louis Joseph Svabek bought the property and re-named the business El Cap. Svabek registered three other St. Pete beer joints – Nite Cap, Sun Cap and Old Cap – and one in Largo, Hub Cap.

And in 1963, he sold El Cap to Frank Bonfili’s parents. The senior Bonfili’s half-brother was New York-based National League umpire Augie Donatelli, who visited St. Petersburg every year for Spring Training. He encouraged Steve and his wife to invest in the city, “a nice place where a lot of baseball people go.”

Sports Illustrated, issue 1 (1954). The umpire in the photo is Augie Donatelli, a relative of the Bonfili family and a longtime St. Pete resident.

Donatelli, who appeared in an action photo on the cover of the first issue of Sports Illustrated in 1954, retired to St. Petersburg in 1973, and sometimes held court from the bar at El Cap. He briefly owned a 4th Street tavern of his own.

Following Frank’s passing, Mary Jean became the central figure in the El Cap story.

“She was fun to work with,” says Tara Mattiacci. “And she was a people person, so she really enjoyed being behind the bar and talking to her customers. Everybody knew her.”

Mattiacci’s parents had been friendly with Frank and Mary Jean; they were all part of a group of couples who enjoyed evenings out together at Derby Lane.  “I was kind of raised around El Cap,” Mattiacci explains.

Looking for a job, Mattiacci asked her family friend if there were any openings at the restaurant. She was handed an order pad and shown the menu on the wall. That was in 2001 – she’s been there ever since.

Cindy Nally signed on soon afterwards. They were hired as waitresses, but “we trained to do everything. That’s the way Mary Jean was back then.”

Still, it wasn’t always sunshine, unicorns and hamburgers, according to Mattiacci. “Within two months of me coming on, she found out that almost the entire staff was involved in a theft ring. People that had worked for her and Frank for 15 or more years.

“It was heartbreaking for her, but she had to lose a lot of longtime staff members, friends, people that she thought she took care of … she couldn’t figure out why the restaurant was so busy and she had to keep putting money into it out of her personal account.”

Soon, Mattiacci and Nally were co-managers. Around 2016, Mattiacci reveals, Bonfili – who had no children – told them she’d changed her will. She intended to leave El Cap to them, her loyal management team. “She said that she wanted us to keep it the way it was.”

Bonfili, 66, died of cancer May 28, 2019 – three years ago today.

Tara and Cindy – El Cap’s legal owners now – still greet regulars as they come in for lunch and dinner; Larry’s still behind the bar, and Johnny’s at his prep station next to the kitchen, crafting those one-of-a-kind burgers.

The owners know they’re the keepers of a proud St. Pete legacy.

“We don’t want to sell,” Mattiacci insists. “If the time came that we decided to, we would only sell it to someone that would be involved in the community, and knows that it needs to stay here. It’s a big deal.”

El Cap, photographed in the ’70s. This photo is in a frame on the restaurant wall.

El Cap, photographed Friday afternoon, May 27, 2022. Photo by Bill DeYoung

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17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Avatar

    LeeRoy Brown

    May 28, 2022at3:53 pm

    Place has never been the same since Frank passed

  2. Avatar

    Georgia Earp

    May 28, 2022at4:46 pm

    Thank you, Bill DeYoung for all the interesting and sweet stories of St Petersburg’s past!

  3. Avatar

    Susan

    May 28, 2022at5:11 pm

    Bill’s stories about local businesses makes you want to come and try them even if you are not from St. Pete. It’s a gift

  4. Avatar

    Kathleen Murphy Posey

    May 28, 2022at9:45 pm

    I love El Caps. There aren’t many places like that left. Great stories about its history. Thank you.

  5. Avatar

    Suzanne

    May 29, 2022at12:43 am

    WE HAVE BEEN GOING TO EL CAP FOR A LONG TIME❤️THE FOOD IS DELICIOUS BUT ONE OF THE BEST THINGS ABOUT EL CAP IS JOHNNY❤️WE LOVE HIM AND HIS AWESOME STORIES❤️HE IS ALWAYS SO SWEET AND HAPPY WHEN WE SEE HIM❤️

  6. Avatar

    Claire Harrison

    May 29, 2022at7:49 am

    My mother, Eleanor Rodd Porter, included us 5 children to regular hamburger treat meals at El Cap ~ she would always exclaim that it was the best burger in town. So at 93 yrs old, I treated her to a burger, her last there, about 4 years ago, seated outside at a lovely patio table. Still the best burger in town ~
    Thank you for this fabulous article & slice of history.
    Claire Porter Harrison, Atlanta, GA

  7. Avatar

    Sonya Davis

    May 29, 2022at8:28 am

    Great story! Amazing we have so many great places in St. Petersburg. I want a burger after reading this great story!
    Thanks for sharing.

  8. Avatar

    Linda Heath

    May 29, 2022at8:45 am

    In the picture from the 70s the lady standing behind the guy in the yellow shirt Leona. She was for a long time the ONLY waitress. I always got a Swiss burger all the way, which I called the Leona Burger. I had a huge crush on Frankie as a young girl. I was heartbroken, when he died and equally sad when Mary Jean passed. When Mary Jean married Frankie she wasn’t quite as comfortable with the bar customers but learned that it was a family. When I came home from college Frank had a graduation card waiting for me. I too have great memories of ElCap and hope it never goes away.

  9. Avatar

    Beverly

    May 29, 2022at10:50 am

    My mother is the waitress in back of picture, Beverly. She worked there for over 20 years. I would live copy of article

  10. Avatar

    Scott Simmons

    May 29, 2022at1:36 pm

    Thank you Bill. Even though we are in Mexico for good, this brought back fond memories from a time when life was not so contentious.

  11. Avatar

    John Coate

    May 29, 2022at2:08 pm

    I was a bread salesman for Dandee Bread in the 60’s and the El Cap was an excellent account for me. Beverly and her husband bought lots of rye bread and hamburger buns. A lot of good memories!

  12. Avatar

    Diane

    May 29, 2022at10:33 pm

    I hope things there get better. They were great back in the ‘80s when I moved here. Tried it again 3-4 years ago and it was terrible. The burger was tiny and tasteless and the oil the fries are fried in tasted like it hadn’t been changed in a week.

  13. Avatar

    Jeanette R Bulatowicz

    May 30, 2022at6:48 pm

    Thank you for the story.. so glad to hear how it worked out. We’ve had some good times there for 40 years. And you must try their hot wings!
    Thank you to Johnny too for his friendly stories and great food.

  14. Avatar

    Lesley Guillot

    May 31, 2022at11:11 am

    We love the El Cap!!!! Have been a fan ever since now adult daughter cam-corded Frank back in the early 90’s. He was most accommodating to the then 8-yr old. Now when I come visit sister, it’s always the 1st stop when I land …. and last stop on way back out. Mary Jean always had that big smile when she’d see me and loved that Aunt Lynn would order one to go for her fave niece. See you in July <3

  15. Avatar

    Vince Sage

    May 31, 2022at7:00 pm

    I moved from Detroit to Seminole FL, and heard about Elcap so the wife & I went and checked it out and behold before my eyes was a great sports town, but the best was the Burger WOW great place & people. Many more years…

  16. Avatar

    Linda Valentino

    May 31, 2022at7:15 pm

    We found this place on a whim,since we live in Seminole the Burgers are the best. I drive 18 miles for El Caps. Yeah the place is not like it was when Mary Jean had it but overall it’s still our favorite for lunch. Get the burger with the works.its the best with pickles. Highly recommend this place.

  17. Avatar

    BARRY FRY, SR.

    September 7, 2022at5:50 pm

    I got engaged at El Cap in 1982! I w
    on a five dollar bet from George Kostilnick, because Frank couldn’t call my name, but he never forgot it! Great guy, gone way to soon!

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