Dodecanese Blvd. in Tarpon Springs, Florida is a hub for Greek life. The infamous Sponge Docks bring thousands of tourists a year to experience this unique culture. Recently, the docks have incorporated an Italian Café and Deli. This café is named Gennaro’s. Newly opened in October amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Gennaro’s serves as the Sponge Docks only Italian eatery. Moreover, the predominant Greek culture that many tourists come to see in the town are located on this same street. The two cultures compliment but also parallel themselves through food, music and tradition. This blending of cultures is important to diversity.
A variation in cultures creates understanding across the world. The United States is full of many different traditions and ideas that make it so unique. Tarpon Springs has been known for its Greek culture since the late 1800s and early 1900s when Greeks first came to Florida to earn money sponging, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Even the high school mascot is a “sponger,” or a sponge diver while Tarpon Springs Middle School’s mascot is a Spartan, named after the Spartans in Greek history.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, “It’s estimated that 90–95 percent of all sea sponges are still harvested in Tarpon Springs.”
“More than one in 10 residents claim Greek descent, giving Tarpon Springs a higher percentage of Greek-Americans than any other American city,” according to Visit Florida. Important Greek events such as Epiphany are celebrated each January and are even broadcasted on the news.
Greece and Italy do share similarities. “This biogeographical region includes the Mediterranean Sea and seven Member States, either partially (France, Portugal, Italy, Spain) or completely (Greece, Malta, Cyprus),” according to the European Census. Greeks and Italians have been intertwined for centuries through the ancient Romans and Greeks to Greek civilizations established in Italy.
“Many areas across the eastern coast and southern tip of the Italian peninsula, including most of the island of Sicily, were gradually inhabited by Greek populations, who established their cities in vast areas of what is now the Italian homeland,” according to The Greek Reporter.
Mediterranean food is a baseline for Greek and Italian food. Core ingredients include olive oil, tomatoes, pasta and red wine, according to Allrecipes.com. Both cuisines share these similarities in their food, but Italian food does differ from Greek food.
“It is not common for an Italian restaurant to be opened here. But the food is fantastic. It is nice having something more diverse in a Greek area. I’m half Italian, so I definitely support the Italian part, but I also enjoy Greek food as well,” an employee from Sweetie’s Ice Cream Parlor.
The menus to popular restaurants in Tarpon Springs include dishes such as: gyros, souvlaki, saganaki and spanakopita. Gennaro’s offers options such as: meatballs, Italian subs, the infamous Italian wedding soup and lasagna. Each restaurant offers unique food to the culture they are associated with causing you to really immerse yourself and “step into” it.
“Greek and Italian cultures are similar because most food is based around the same recipes. Spaghetti and meatballs for Italians is similar to macaroni and meet sauce in Greek culture. They also share traditions and values like family gatherings and how close the family is, superstitions like the evil eye and the history between the two are intertwined. Architecture in Greece and Italy are similar from Rome and Classical Greece, even the music is in Italy and Greece have striking similarities through the instruments they use. The cultures have mixed for thousands of years. I think many are excited to see a blend in these different cultures, not turned off by it. It is important to create a diverse area. My family hasn’t seen much diversity here from the many years they have been here, and I know they are excited to see new things coming to Tarpon,” Michael Karatza, Tarpon Springs native.
Diversity is important because it creates understanding and acceptance of all. In a town with only one culture, it is important to recognize other peoples thoughts, traditions and ways of life than the ones apart of the dominant one. Diversity creates inclusion.
“I think it’s awesome that there is a change in pace on the Sponge Docks. I have been coming here for many years and find it interesting to see an Italian restaurant here. There isn’t much diversity in Tarpon Springs and by adding this, I think others will be just as happy to see a change as I am,” Savannah Heggen, Gennaro’s customer.
Katina’s Mini Mart is a small establishment on the Sponge Docks. They serve alcohol, spices and much more. Son of the owner, Savva Psaras is employed at Katina’s and said diversity will “make the community a lot stronger, and bring a lot of business into the community.”
Phone interview with Savva Psaras:
In a separate interview, Psaras discussed his family’s view on the Italian restaurant.
“My family is supportive of the restaurant, but doesn’t want to see the Docks loose its originality that brings so many people here to see it. People come for the Greek culture and Greek life, not anything else.”
In 2020, the COVID pandemic caused mass hysteria across the world. “57% of small businesses will close permanently if there are more shutdowns due to the COVID-19 Delta variant,” according to Digital.com.
The pandemic impacted the Sponge Docks like it did the rest of the world. Many shops and restaurants suffered hard hits from the pandemic.
“We were shut down for four weeks, there was no products to sell. We only did to go orders for three or four months because of social distancing and limited contact,” an employee of The Limani, a restaurant on the docks.
“The pandemic had an impact on alcohol sales for some time due to social distancing, limiting the number of people in a certain area and some people weren’t allowed in places at all. They could only purchase to take home. It also limited performers that were able to play inside of the Sponge Exchange,” Petro Leventis, Greek Islands Gift Shop.
The pandemic has impacted many, but for Angie Kalimnios, it did not stop her from opening Gennaro’s. The restaurant was named after her father, who was Italian.
What inspired you to stray from the norm and open an Italian restaurant in a prominent Greek town?
Kalimnios: I was inspired by what I felt was needed for the busy person or families that wanted a healthier version of a quick bite to eat.
How do you think having Italian food on the Sponge Docks will affect tourists?
Kalimnios: We wanted to add something else for tourists to have more of an option than the normal Greek cuisine or seafood.
Since opening the restaurant, have you noticed any similarities or differences in Greek and Italian culture?
Kalimnios: Italian food is Mediterranean so it can be similar to Greek food. Most people would say there are a lot of similarities between the Greek and Italian foods and cultures. A lot of the foods are prepared the same way: sauces, desserts and side dishes.
Do you feel that by adding Italian culture in Tarpon Springs creates diversity?
Kalimnios: I do believe that we have created some diversity but not in a bad way. In a way of enhancing our small little town.
Being diverse is important in todays world. With a melting pot of cultures, inclusion is important to understand one another. Tarpon Springs is full of Greek life and culture, but is willing to accept the “not traditional” and incorporate new beginnings within the town.