Mel Todaro, whose Merriman Valley party center has catered everything from elaborate weddings to high-end political events, died Wednesday at age 84.
Mr. Todaro had kidney cancer that spread to his brain, his son Frank said Thursday. “He fought it for a long time. He was working up until two weeks ago,” Frank Todaro said.
Hard work was a source of pride for his father, he said, recalling his often-spoken line about work: “Come early, stay late.”
Todaro catered thousands of weddings, proms and political functions from the party center at 1820 Akron-Peninsula Road, Cuyahoga Falls, which Frank now operates.
“He was a self-made man. He was from poor means,” Frank Todaro said. “I think he grew bigger than what he ever intended to be.”
Mr. Todaro was raised on the east side of Cleveland. He was just 19 when he started working at Alesci’s Imported Foods in Cleveland, one of the first Italian markets to offer off-site catering for weddings and parties.
Four years later, in 1952, Mr. Todaro married the boss’s daughter, Mary Alesci, and continued to work for his father-in-law until 1959, when he purchased Vitarella’s Importing in Akron’s North Hill, changing the name to Todaro’s Imported Foods. Like his father-in-law, Mr. Todaro began to cultivate his catering business while importing Italian specialty foods.
In a June 2011 interview, Mr. Todaro recalled how the closing of the North Hill Viaduct in the 1970s cut off North Main Street and nearly killed his business, forcing him to look for another location. He had been noticing how church basements were falling out of favor with brides who wanted more elegant settings for their receptions, and broke ground for Todaro’s Party Center, which opened in 1976.
As well-known as Todaro’s is in the community, the round table in its back room is perhaps even more famous. Among the crates of pasta and cases of olive oil, Mr. Todaro would hold court at the table, using it as his office, personal party space and private dining table.
He liked to boast that when dignitaries visited, he would have them eat at his back room table so they could enjoy their meal outside of the spotlight and without security concerns.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (when he was CIA chief) and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland all have been guests at the table.
“If you were invited to the back table, you were special. When Panetta was there, Dad packed him up with all kinds of groceries that went back with him to Washington,” Frank Todaro said.
Raphael Vaccaro, owner of Bath Township restaurant Vaccaro’s Trattoria, recalled how Mr. Todaro and his late father Frank Vaccaro were longtime friends and part of the same Thursday night poker game.
Those who knew Mr. Todaro, he said, will miss most his sense of humor.
“He had so many bad jokes. Most of them were dirty. He’d come in on Fridays and he’d take 10 minutes to walk from the bar stool to the front door because he’d stop to tell five jokes to people on his way out,” Vaccaro said.
In his 2011 interview, Mr. Todaro summed up his life this way: “A lot of people have more money than me, a lot of people have more property than me, a lot of people have more investments than me. But nobody will eat better than me.”
Mr. Todaro is survived by his wife of 60 years Mary, four sons, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Calling hours will be 2 to 8 p.m. Sunday and 4 to 8 p.m. Monday at Ciriello & Carr Memorial Home, 39 S. Miller Road, Fairlawn. Mass of Christian Burial will be at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at St. Hilary Catholic Church in Fairlawn, with burial to follow in Holy Cross Cemetery in Akron.
Lisa Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.