When you travel to major cities in the United States and Canada, cities that have seen a lot of immigrants settle in them over the years, you tend to find places with heavy concentration of one ethnic group or another. These enclaves have names such as Chinatown in San Francisco, Greek Town in Chicago and Little Italy in New York. But if you travel to the west coast of Florida you can find the same thing. But it’s not a town within a town; it’s a whole separate town, a Greek town, called Tarpon Springs.
The first Greeks came to the area in 1880s and were hired to work in the town’s growing natural sponge harvesting industry. A Greek businessman named John Cocoris brought a new sponge diving technique to the area. Divers tossed themselves into the sea with weights tied to them so they could drop to the bottom quickly. Divers would cut sponges loose from the bottom and put them in a net to be pulled up into their boats. The divers could often stay at a depth of 100 feet for up to 5 minutes simply by holding their breath. Cocoris encouraged Greeks from the eastern islands of Greece to immigrate to Florida in droves in and by the 1930s the sponge industry was generating millions of dollars a year.
A toxic algae bloom wiped out much of the sponge industry in the late 40s, forcing most of the divers to switch to careers in the boats and not under them, working as shrimpers and fishermen.
Tarpon Springs still calls itself the “Sponge Capital of the World” but no longer relies on the harvest to sustain its economy. The heavily Greek community only an hour north of St. Petersburg is surrounded by dozens of white sandy beaches and has converted much of its water front, that used to house the sponge warehouses, into shops, galleries and of course restaurants.
Papa and Mama Changuris just returned from a visit to the area and recommend the following restaurants if you’re planning a trip:
Momma Maria’s on Rt 19A – it had authentic Greek food. Big selection. Generous portions. Casual atmosphere. It was full and busy at suppertime. We liked the avgolemono and lentil soup, particularly because they included vegetables in with the lentils. Mama also had a vegetarian gyro. The dolmades were good; I think they used dill. Abundant bread. They had Mythos. I would go back.
Mykonos in the town center – a traditional dinner. We had saganaki with the traditional oopa! I had avgolemono soup and pork souvlaki. It was tomato-based. It too was crowded at suppertime.
Dimitris – also in town center but with a water view and good service. Saganaki was good with the oopa! Big salad and I thought the grouper broiled with lemon was excellent. Mama had lentil soup (just lentils, no vegetables) and spanakopita. It had a lot of filo.