BY CAROL SHAUGHNESSY
Florida Keys News Bureau
STOCK ISLAND, Florida Keys — When Bobby Mongelli looks around the Hogfish Bar and Grill, he sees far more than the funky, quintessentially casual locals' emporium he created overlooking the water in Stock Island's Safe Harbor area.
In his mind's eye, he can visualize a revitalized Stock Island — a working waterfront community alive with history, where Florida Keys shrimpers and commercial fishermen unload their catches as tourists watch, and a harbor walk connects small shops, restaurants, fish markets, marinas and artist studios. In fact, on the island next to Key West, he envisions a vibrant, close-knit community much like the one he embraced in Key West in the late 1970s and early '80s. And he's working with other longtime residents and business owners to preserve Stock Island's waterfront character and way of life while rejuvenating the rundown industrial landscape.
A man of untiring enthusiasm and rapid-fire speech, Mongelli began his career as a dishwasher at Key West's Casa Marina Resort in 1979. His subsequent credits include the development of PT's, a popular local hangout that serves up a sports-bar atmosphere and satisfying comfort food on Key West's Caroline Street.
Four years ago, he got the chance to reinvent a working-class bar in Stock Island's gritty Safe Harbor area — and turned it into the Hogfish.
"Hogfish is a specialty of the Keys, and it has a sweet, scallop flavor," he says of the fish that inspired his watering hole's name and signature dish. "We serve it on Cuban bread made at a Key West Cuban bakery, and we smother it in mushrooms, onions and cheese."
As well as a full bar, quality casual fare and seafood, the 100-seat Hogfish also is renowned for its mellow, laid-back atmosphere. Diners and drinkers can sit inside or out, at weathered picnic tables or overlooking a handful of picturesque houseboats and sailboats moored at the adjacent dock.
Notables who have ventured out to Stock Island to sample the Hogfish's appeal include entertainer Jimmy Buffett and his fellow musicians, congressmen and senators, and a group Mongelli characterizes as "cool people from all over the world."
"People say they love the bar and restaurant because they can sit and relax and feel like locals," he says.
Mongelli has felt like a local since early in his Keys sojourn, when he was captivated by the residents' friendliness and reveled in catching his own lobster and fish for dinner. He still spends much of his leisure time on the water, spearfishing or taking his four kids out wakeboarding.
Mongelli's abiding affection for his home and its surrounding waters fuels his efforts to shape Stock Island's future. "There's a whole group of people that are going to try to preserve the waterfront for the fishermen and develop a tourist economy at the same time," he says. "People have this vision in their minds of this old Key West fishing community — and Stock Island is becoming what Key West used to be."
The community also has its own vibrant heritage. A ferry that once connected Key West and Havana departed from a dock across from the Hogfish, and local lore says Safe Harbor was a staging area for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.
However, discovering the historic working waterfront is just one of the activities Mongelli suggests for visitors to the Florida Keys.
"Take a sunset cruise," he advises. "It'll blow you away. Eat some local seafood. Have a margarita on the beach at sunset — it's so relaxing. And see the Keys like a local. That's how you see the real Keys."
Bobby Mongelli sees his Hogfish Bar and Grill as the catalyst for a revitalized Stock Island. Photos by Rob O'Neal/Florida Keys News Bureau
Mongelli shows off a reproduction of his most favorite icon, a hog snapper.