MARATHON, Florida Keys — At Middle Keys eateries, most local customers are known by name and visiting patrons receive a feel-good welcome at the door. John Mirabella, owner and operator of Marathon's Castaway Restaurant with his wife Arlene, is at the epicenter of the good times, which roll as easily at his waterside seafood joint as the daily featured sushi rolls.
"I love these island communities. The simple way of life is a strong draw for me and many other island dwellers," he said. "There is a strong sense of ownership in the community and people care for and support one another."
Mirabella was Brooklyn born and raised in Titusville, Fla., across the Indian River from Kennedy Space Center's launch pad 39B. He served a stint in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear plant operator, electrician and ship's diver aboard a Fast Attack Submarine. That led to working in the commercial nuclear industry for another five years.
John and Arlene met in 1994 and the pair sailed from Los Angeles to Marathon on a 36-foot Piver Trimaran.
The duo found the Keys a welcome departure and in 2000 they purchased the Castaway Restaurant and embarked on what John calls a new life.
Ask the 44-year-old restaurateur what his passion is, and the answer is simple.
"Ahhhh, spearfishing! I love it!" Mirabella said.
"I want to go scuba diving all the time, and yes, I hunt most of the time," he added. "It's hard not to hunt fish when you own a seafood restaurant and you are hooked on the sport anyway."
When time allows, John and Arlene visit family scattered from the Midwest to the Philippines. The Maldives and Tahitian Islands are still on their destination bucket list, but the waters surrounding the Keys are where they most want to be.
In the Keys Mirabella honed his spearfishing skills, something he'd tried with Hawaiian slings in the Bahamas at age 10.
"What's awesome about spearfishing is you can't have the wrong bait and the fish don't have to be hungry," he explained.
He used to fish the Keys from the surface, but during scuba diving trips he would notice the migration patterns of baitfish and other species — and know right away if there were fish to catch on a certain day, rather than sitting in the boat with fishing rod in hand and nothing biting.
"My favorite moment is when I pull the trigger, the spear goes to the fish and I realize I'm about to have a few minutes of big excitement, man versus creature, to dispatch the fish and get him on my stringer," Mirabella said. "It's especially exciting for me if it's a big, strong fish like a cobia or an African pompano — something that will really challenge me."
Spearfishing not only provides recreation but fresh fish for his restaurant, too. Patrons savor Mirabella's own fresh-caught snapper, grouper, hogfish, mahi-mahi, tuna, African pompano, cobia and wahoo. He even serves lionfish, an invasive Indo-Pacific fish and menu mainstay whose delicate white meat is a favorite for ceviche.
"We don't kill any fish we don't eat," said Mirabella.
He stressed that spearfishermen are stewards of the environment since the sport does not contribute to any by-catch and promotes cleanliness in the environment.
"I don't leave any trash or damage in my wake, and I seldom drop my anchor because we mostly drift dive around manmade structures and wrecks," he said. "I'm not sure why anyone would think that spearfishing is bad for the ocean."
What's Mirabella's advice to aficionados ready to come to the Middle Keys with friends and learn how to spearfish? Learn from watching the pros and remember that, as with most skills, practice makes perfect.
Happy, happy, happy with a cubera snapper today.
John and Arlene met started their new life together as restaurateurs in 1999.
A successful day on the water with friends. Fresh catch at Castaway Restaurant, for sure.