Tarpon Springs: Sponges, Surf and Saganaki

Where in Florida can you find an abundance of natural sponges, Greek culture and great Mediterranean food, and a nice beach? Tarpon Springs, that’s where!

Tarpon Springs, which is about 40 minutes north of Tampa, is the natural sponge capital of the Gulf. Yes, sponges — not those artificial things you buy in the supermarket, but the actual sponge animal, as in Porifera. Here, Greek immigrants (the historical masters and practicioners of the sponge diving trade) have established their own town, with all of the things associated with it that make it a real Greek fishing village, including (many) restaurants that feature locally caught seafood, as well as Greek Orthodox Churches and community centers, etc. According to the 2004 census, the city has the largest percentage of Greek Americans living there of any city in the United States, including Astoria, NY.

This is the Sponge Factory, one of the myriad of tourist stores on Dodecanese street that sells natural sponges, beauty aids, as well as Greek decorative and religious goods. The Sponge Factory also has a theatre where you can watch a 30 minute video on all about sponge diving, as well as a museum exhibit area.

The common “Yellow” sponge.

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These are Flowerpot sponges, which can actually be used to hold and grow house plants.

As you can see, there’s plenty of Greek stuff for sale as well. I dig the Hoplite helmets.

Sponge-O-Rama is the other famous sponge store and tourist shop.

The Sponge-O-Rama store.

More flowerpot sponges.


even more sponges…

Down by the docks they have sponge boats set up as they would appear returning from a sponge harvest.

These days the docks now mostly have pleasure and fishing boats — Tarpon Spings is predominantly a tourist attraction now, not much actual sponge diving in the area takes place anymore. In the 1940s a “red tide” killed off most of the local sponge beds, but in the 1980s a few new ones were discovered. The sponge boats now go much further out to bring back their harvest, and for the most part the larger stores like Sponge Factory and Spongeorama are large buyers of sponges that come from all over the world rather than processors and sponge divers themselves. Still, the town has great character and should not be missed, and the natural sponges are great things to bring home and last a very long time.

Dodecanese Street, the main drag in Tarpon Spings where all the shops and restaurants are. It just so happened that the day we visited, January 6th, was the Greek Epiphany, which is a festival of major religious significance and attracts Greeks from all over to visit the city, so the town was extra crowded.

We decided to escape the crowds for a few hours and head over to Howard Park, which has beautiful clean white sand beaches. They’ve got changing rooms and showers and the park is open to public access.

Halki Market in town is a grocery store which has everything you need for Greek cooking.

A view down the aisles. The Greek olive oil selection is quite impressive.

Deli goods list.

Directly across the street from Halki is Costas Restaurant, where we decided to order a few appetizers.

Just about everyone orders the flaming Saganaki. OPA!

Saganaki appetizer

“U-Peel” shrimp, which are fresh Florida Gulf Shrimp brought in freshly from the docks, sauteed in Greek Kalamata Olive Oil with Oregano and Lemon Juice. Outstanding.

After Costas, we hit Plaka Gyros, known for making their own Gyro meat from scratch. As you can see, these guys are pretty serious.

The Gyro spits at Plaka.

Now that’s what I call Gyro meat.

Plaka’s Gyros are old school basic — just meat (a generous amount) onions, fresh ripe tomato and tzatziki. No other stuff on it. Unlike the mass produced gyro meats that come from Kontos and Kronos, this stuff is ground fresh, mixed by hand and seasoned with just spices and some regular salt, not MSG. The meat has a characteristically cumin-heavy flavor, not unlike Shwarma or Falafel. By far the best Gyro sandwich I have ever had.

Our next stop was Mama Maria’s, where our objective was to go eat some of their famous Keftedes (meatballs). Unfortunately, one of the things about Epiphany is that some of the restaurants run on reduced menus — because of the volume, they decided to shut down the saute station and concentrate on fried and grilled items only. We never got to try them that week, but I’ve been told by locals that the Keftedes at Mama Maria’s are in fact very good.

There are two Mama Maria restaurants in town, but this one goes out of its way to declare itself the original. I did  see an older Greek lady that was very “Mama” like presiding over things, so I’ll take their word that this is the better of the two.

Mama Maria’s dining room.

Greek Salad, with one of the best dressings we’ve ever had on one.

Horta, a bitter green cooked in olive oil with lemon juice.

A simple Greek pilaf with tomato sauce, seasoned with cinnamon and cloves. We liked this one a lot. The manager/owner told me that his mother makes a big pot of the sauce every day.

Fried Kalamari. Excellent.

Our final stop was the Dodecanese Restaurant and Bakery to take some pastries home for later.

Dodecanese dining room

All the Greek pastries are made in-house.

6 Responses to Tarpon Springs: Sponges, Surf and Saganaki

  1. when can yu buy shrimp off the boats we were there before and want to know where to buy fresh shrimp that come off the boats thanks

  2. Randi says:

    That calamari looks amazing.

  3. Thank you for the wonderful review on our restaurant. I distincly remember you guy, where you were seated, and if i’m not mistaken, you guys are from tampa. On your next visit if we do not remember; please remind me Michael and i’ve got a treat of beef, chicken, and octopus keftedes plate with your name written all over it. Of course this is a gift from Mama Maria herself. Please try and make it in on a Friday or Saturday evening from 7-10 to enjoy the live greek music. It is then you will enjoy the full local greek experience.

    Thanks and God bless,
    Michael Koursiotis
    The Original Mama Maria’s Greek Cuisine

  4. Marc says:

    Wow, I just found this great post. Thanks for visiting our store (Sponge Factory). We recently setup an e-store so for those that do not have the time to visit Tarpon Springs, you can purchase all of the same sea sponges, loofah and our famous natural bath products at http://www.naturalbathandbodyshop.com Thanks for this great review of our city and please come again. Ooopaaah!

  5. Gene Lauro says:

    Loved the review of this restaurant; my wife Nancy and I will be in the area in January 2010 and since I am half Greek, I will do my best to visit the town and this great restaurant.

  6. Sarah says:

    Tarpon Springs is the best place to buy natural sea sponges…and gyros!

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