West Tampa loses John LaBarbera, one of the last Spaghetti Benders

Courtesy of the LaBarbera family
John LaBarbera, one of the last of Tampa\u2019s \u201CSpaghetti Benders\u201D died on July 1 at the age of 88. Alongside him is his wife Betty Jo LaBarbera.
Courtesy of the LaBarbera family John LaBarbera, one of the last of Tampa\u2019s \u201CSpaghetti Benders\u201D died on July 1 at the age of 88. Alongside him is his wife Betty Jo LaBarbera.
Published July 11 2018
Updated July 11 2018

Known as the "Spaghetti Benders," they were a group of Latin men who from the 1950s through early 1990s hosted pasta dinners that drew massive crowds of Tampa residents to parks throughout the year for the benefit of charities and political candidates.

On July 1, John LaBarbera, one of the last surviving Spaghetti Benders, died at 88 years old. His family said he had heart disease.

"I wish my dad would have kept track of how many pounds of pasta he cooked in his lifetime," son Joe LaBarbera said with a laugh. "I bet he would have broken a world record."

The dinners, typically held at Macfarlane and Lowry parks, supported candidates vying for local, state or federal seats, the son said. Entry tickets were sold in advance for as little as $1.50, and then patrons donated more money at the events.

Sometimes the Spaghetti Benders would approach a candidate about providing support. Other times candidates asked for the group’s backing. "But they never helped anyone they didn’t believe in," the son said.

For national politicians who rarely attended the dinners, these were just fundraisers. But for a local candidate, these were an opportunity to directly discuss their platform with voters.

"Hundreds, sometimes thousands would go," said Victor R. DiMaio, the son of deceased Spaghetti Bender Victor E. DiMaio. "It was a different time in politics. You didn’t get to know candidates through the TV. You got to know them personally at those dinners."

The spaghetti dinners annually supported a number of favorite organizations, including the West Tampa Boys Club and the West Tampa Little League.

"John was one of those old school guys who dedicated his life to helping others," Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco said, "and lifting up the neighborhoods."

An Ybor City native, Mr. LaBarbera served in the Army and spent decades investigating white collar crimes for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

"Everybody lovingly called him Deputy Dog," friend DiMaio said.

Still, his signature accomplishment in law enforcement, Mr. LaBarbera once said in an interview, was helping to create the Sheriff’s Boys Jamboree event that annually raised money for the Boys Clubs of Tampa and the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch. It did so, of course, through spaghetti dinners that brought as many as 8,000 to Lowry Park.

Mr. LaBarbera’s son Joe estimated there were a dozen leaders of the Spaghetti Benders charged with organizing the dinners and finding enough volunteers to help with the prepping, cooking and serving.

In the days leading up to the feast, the sauce was prepared at the home of late-Spaghetti Bender Adrian "Bebe" Castro. The benders warmed the sauce over portable gas grills in the parks, and the long strands of uncooked spaghetti, of course, had to be bent to fit into the boiling pots of water.

"It was a family atmosphere," Mr. LaBarbera’s nephew Joe Petralia said. "There would be hundreds of people who all seemed to know each other as they ate hundreds of gallons of spaghetti."

On one occasion, hundreds of diners were expected but thousands came out to Macfarlane Park and they worried there was not enough food. "So, they put a hose in the sauce," DiMaio said with a laugh.

Tampa area politicians still host dinners, DiMaio said, but they are mostly intimate affairs. The massive public parties once held throughout the year are few and far between, he said.

Mr. LaBarbera’s son Joe thinks just one Spaghetti Bender remains. The man showed up to Mr. LaBarbera’s service on July 6, the son said, but the signature in the guest book is illegible.

Still, "Spaghetti Benders" was printed cleanly next to it.

"It’s a bygone era," the son said. "And my dad was one of the last."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.