Tony Angello didn’t just serve his customers. He fed them.
He fed them to the tune of 10, 12 or more courses during dinners at his Lakeview Italian restaurant, Tony Angello’s Ristorante, where for decades regulars have known to order the “feed me.” And after his neighborhood was wiped out by catastrophic flooding after Hurricane Katrina, he soon returned to feed them again as they rebuilt together.
Angello — born Anthony Angello — died Tuesday at age 88. He was surrounded by his family when he passed away, according to his daughter, Angela Angello Riviere.
He had broken his hip a week earlier in a fall, which led to his death.
The restaurant he started more than 40 years ago at the corner of Fleur de Lis Drive and West Harrison Avenue was closed Tuesday but reopened Wednesday. That’s the way Angello would have wanted it, his daughter said.
“He spent nearly every day of his life doing what he loved most, feeding his friends and customers in what has become his unique style, where patrons say, ‘Just feed us,’ ” Riviere said.
Angello was born in Pueblo, Colorado, and moved to New Orleans at an early age. He grew up in Lakeview when the neighborhood itself was still young.
He got his start in the restaurant business as a teenager with a job at the Rockery Inn on Canal Boulevard. By the time he was in his 20s, he and a friend opened Two Tonys Lounge, a business on Canal Boulevard (and unrelated to the current Two Tony’s Restaurant in West End).
Later, he and his brother Joe Angello opened the Black Orchid Lounge in Gentilly. Tony Angello soon took over the entire business along with Il Ristorante, an Italian eatery located on the building’s second floor. It was here, in the early 1960s, that he began serving dinners in his “feed me” format.
“He discovered his true passion for cooking and the joy of entertaining his growing number of friends,” his daughter said.
To expand, he sold Il Ristorante and the Black Orchid and used the proceeds to build Tony Angello’s Ristorante, which opened in Lakeview in 1972. The building looked much like the suburban-style homes around it, with little indication from the street that there was a restaurant inside. But behind the brick façade, he had built a bar and a series of dining rooms decorated with family photos on the mantelpieces.
Here, regulars ordered up their many-course meals, which progressed through appetizer-sized servings of lobster cup, pasta with crab gravy, eggplant Tina, cannelloni, veal with peppers and mushrooms, and other specialties.
Nestled in its neighborhood, the restaurant always has relied almost exclusively on local business. That was one reason why Angello put so much of himself into the work, said Dale Messina, the restaurant’s longtime dining room manager.
“He had a passion for what he did,” said Messina, who started at Tony Angello’s not long after it opened. “The celebrations, the events, the anniversaries, the christenings — he touched the lives of generations of people in a very deep way, and it gave him such pleasure to do it. There’s no doubt that’s what kept him motivated.”
During Katrina, the breach of the 17th Street Canal occurred just a few blocks away. The restaurant was flooded up to the roofline, like the rest of the neighborhood.
Angello was 79 at the time, but Riviere said her father never spoke of retiring. Instead, he vowed early on that he would rebuild, and he was able to reopen his restaurant on May 9, 2007.
“His persistence and refusal to give up were just what the Lakeview community and New Orleans needed, and one could see it in the eyes of each person who stepped through his door that evening and for many evenings to come,” Riviere said.
In the years that followed, as Angello grew older, his nephew Frankie Catalanotto began taking on a larger role at the restaurant. Now, Catalanotto, Messina and Riviere will continue to run Tony Angello’s together.
“To honor the old man, we’re keeping the tradition and that legacy alive,” Messina said.
Visitation will be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday at Lake Lawn Funeral Home, 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd., and from 10 a.m. to a 2 p.m. Mass on Monday at St. Dominic Catholic Church, 775 Harrison Ave.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.