Located on the central-west coast of Florida, Tarpon Springs is known for the sponge-diving industry founded by Greek immigrants in the 19th century. Even now, when tourism has replaced sponge diving as the mainstay of the economy, the town is reputed to have the country’s highest concentration of Greek-Americans.
To other visitors, Tarpon Springs might evoke thoughts of a Greek fishing village. But Greece is a country I’ve never visited and, instead, the sponge docks zone of Tarpon Springs reminds me of Italy. The narrow, sunbleached streets, fishing boats, bright blue trim and signage on white stucco buildings, locals chatting together in animated fashion–all trigger memories of similar street scenes in Sicily and other parts of southern Italy.
Not so surprising, perhaps. After all, a large swath of southern Italy was in ancient times essentially a Greek colony known as Magna Graecia. To this day, the temples of Agrigento and Paestum bear witness to the entangled history of Greece and Italy.
I like to stop by The Sponge Factory, not for the natural sponges (these days, mostly imported, and in any case available in nearly any shop here), but to watch the ancient video about sponge diving that plays in a back-of-the-store viewing room. It’s fascinating to watch the divers don wet suits, be fitted with weights, and sink hundreds of feet to ply their trade.
Then it’s time for the real purpose of the visit: eating, of course. As with the shops, there are an abundance of restaurants jostling for our business. We went to Mykonos the first time because a friend had recommended it, and now we go because it’s hard to imagine another Greek eatery pleasing us more. Chef Andreas “Andrico” Salivaras is in the kitchen while the servers briskly manage the dining room, answering familiar questions barely out of our mouths. The meaning of the Greek sign dividing the kitchen from the dining room? “Our name guarantees good results.” The location of the owner’s bakery? 15 N. Pinellas Avenue, across from St. Nicholas Cathedral. And so on.
We start with saganaki, for the spectacle of watching the server flame a semi-soft cheese called kefalograviera. Then it’s on to fried smelts, char-grilled octopus, meltingly tender lamb shanks with roasted potatoes. Another favorite is briam, an aromatic braise of zucchini, eggplant, potatoes and tomatoes. Everything tastes deeply authentic and satisfying, which I attribute to the use of good-quality olive oil. All of these dishes have equivalents in Italy and, ignoring the names, I could imagine I’m there, in some seaside town.
Tarpon Springs is on my mind because it’s January 6, when crowds converge on the town to watch the Ephiphany celebration. Swishing sprigs of basil in holy water, an archbishop in Greek Orthodox robes blesses fishermen, boats, shopkeepers and everyone else. As extra insurance in securing a year of blessings, a young girl releases a dove and the town’s boys dive for a white cross. I don’t love crowds so I’m celebrating from afar and dreaming of my next expedition.