Paul Gonzalez eats a pita sandwich in an unlikely setting. Nearby hangs a huge cross with a crown of thorns protruding from the stained pine.
"There's not only food for the body, but food for the soul here. And I'm not a religious person personally," says Gonzalez over lunch at St. Francis Cafe.Diners break bread amid statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, a collection of religious artwork and spiritual music. But that's not all that sets this restaurant apart.
There is no bill.
Customers receive an envelope for a donation.
Owners Lisa and Bruce Size-more have been in business for 20 months, sometimes accepting a few coins - or less - for their homemade soups, salads and sandwiches and full dinners. It's been, they say, a struggle.
"I've seen miracles here - just the fact that we're open," says Bruce Sizemore. "Every time we get to the bottom of the barrel, something has happened."
Now developers plan a multi-screen theater on the site in Ybor City, a trendy area of nightclubs that borders one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. The cafe must close in September.
The couple have put their life savings into the cafe and their trust in God. They hope to relocate to a site nearby.
"I thought it was going to be a cafe-slash-ministry, but it turned out to be a ministry-slash-cafe," Sizemore says.
A former sheet metal worker, Sizemore has no prior experience with restaurants. "I was hoodwinked and shanghaied," the 43-year-old says with a laugh.
Lisa Sizemore, 41, abandoned nursing to work as the chef. While he talks, she peels potatoes in the tiny kitchen.
The menu changes as the spirit moves them: soups "prayerfully prepared" and hearty salads, including "render unto Caesar, Caesar salad" and the "Greek Orthodox salad." And consider the "converts": Any salad can become a sandwich on pita.
Sandwiches are fat; desserts indulging, homemade cheese cake and baklava. Dinners vary daily from coq au vin; poached salmon in a wine, butter and lemon sauce; perhaps shrimp with Portobello mushrooms and peppers over pasta.
Success, says Bruce Sizemore, comes on two levels. "On a spiritual level, we have received many blessings and been able to help people. Financially, we have failed miserably."
Sometimes people pay more than their share; other times the envelope is empty. More often, patrons come up with a modest amount. Recently, a group of workers came in, ate well and left 50 cents total. Later in the day, one man came back to pay, saying he felt guilty.
The restaurant also feeds the needy, regardless of their ability to pay. After lunch on certain days, the homeless and penniless are welcomed.
Business at the 70-seat eatery is mostly by word of mouth. Many customers are regulars. They talk of gourmet fare, friendly proprietors, soothing atmosphere.
"This isn't like a restaurant, it's like a church," says supermarket clerk Jason Brown.
"I love this place," says Gonzalez, host of a nationally syndicated radio talk show. "I'm uplifted every time I come in. I've brought people here from all over, and everybody leaves feeling rich."
College student David Gunter is touched by the sincerity and love.
"They cater to people who can afford it and to people who can't," he says. "And everybody gets a quality meal."
St. Francis Cafe is in the heart of Tampa's Ybor City, which prospered a century ago as cigar factories rolled out millions of stogies a year.
Today the factories have been replaced by art galleries, gargoyle shops, antiques collections, gay bars and controversial rave clubs where teens dance 'til sunrise.
The contrast between street chaos and cafe calm is striking to Dervea Reilly. "There's a weird dynamic in Ybor City," says the architectural student. "And this place kind of bridges it."
The cafe was the idea of Lisa Sizemore, who converted to Catholicism 12 years ago. "Maybe I'm called to stir a pot," she says. "We touch souls not by our words, but by our witness."
The Sizemores' daughter Cassy and her friend wait tables. When the last dishwasher left, a homeless man asked for the job and stayed.
"We have learned so much," says Lisa Sizemore. "The business end is the scariest part. But that is part of the Franciscan way. St. Francis loved the poor and embraced poverty."
One wall displays a mural of the saint who founded the Franciscan order of friars centuries ago. It was airbrushed by an Ybor youngster who plied his art in bars and pestered Lisa Sizemore.
"Street kids, that's the draw of my heart," she says.
Adds her husband: "I'm not nearly as religious as my wife, but I've gone up a bunch on the faith meter. I'm beginning to believe God has a purpose for us being here."