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.
“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 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.”
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.”