St. Petersburg, Florida - Their fresh, homemade Cuban sandwiches have been ranked on "Best Of" lists. Their stromboli is rolled by hand, baked to a flaky crisp, and looks like something served at a cafe in Little Italy.
And, their gourmet hot dogs...
Wait, did we just say hot dogs, in the company of fancy restaurant fare? As a matter of fact, we did. And, this isn't your ordinary restaurant. It's better.
Welcome to the culinary world of Tropicana Field, where every dish is served with two special ingredients - passion and love.
"Passion is what will carry you through," says Marc Spooner, executive chef for the Tampa Bay Rays. "We love it here."
The tall chef with the broad smile found his love in food when he was a little boy, peering over the stove in his mother's kitchen. With a laugh, he says, "My mom always said I wanted to scramble my own eggs."
Now, Spooner, along with executive sous chef Matteo Casini and countless others, is cooking for thousands of hungry fans on game night at the Trop and loving every minute of it, often catching up on the big plays between innings. If you've ever been to a game, you know the concession stands are packed, along with fan-favorite restaurants, Everglades BBQ and The Brewhouse.
With the postseason frenzy at an all-time high, there are many stomachs to be filled each game night at the Trop, well over 30,000.
"We'll go through more than 200 pork butts, more than 200 pounds of ribs," says Spooner, chuckling slightly. And, that's just for one game.
For more than 80 years, the event and hospitality group Centerplate has been serving fans all over the country, including Tampa Bay.
Veteran hospitality guru, Bill Tracy, a regional vice-president from Centerplate, tells 10 News, "This is very exciting for us. The Rays are a family, the team, the people, the players. People love coming here and enjoying good food."
Tracy ought to know. He's been in charge of hospitality operations at the Meadowlands
Sports Complex, home of the NFL's Jets and Giants, and Shea Stadium,
former home of the New York Mets. He also spent time at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC.
But, Tampa Bay is home. "This is a family," he tell us.
So, let's get down to talking turkey, so to speak. The question everyone seems to want to know is what is one of the most popular, hottest-selling items at the Trop?
The "foot-Longoria" of course, named after the Rays superstar third baseman, Evan Longoria. "People love this," says Spooner.
Casini puts the piping hot, foot-long dog in a fresh bun, tops it with homemade chili, cheese, and onions, and then presents it to us. That's when the wide grin fills his face. "THIS is a foot-Longoria!"
There's been a lot of long days for these hard-working chefs. They arrive at the Trop before the sun comes up and leave well after the game is over for the night. And, while the hours are long, they prefer perfection in their line of work.
"Our food is made-to-order. It's fresh. We don't do a lot of over-prepping because we make it when you order it," Spooner tells us.
So, why is it that food seems to just taste better at the ball park?
"It's in our culture. It's baseball. We love to come here and eat and it just tastes better going down," Spooner said.
By the way, what's the favorite meal Rays players enjoy eating on a Sunday morning at the Trop on a game day?
Omelets, of course, courtesy of Mark Spooner and his crew. After all, you can't play hard on an empty stomach, and this longtime chef and his crew are always ready to fill the stomachs of these hometown heroes.