Anthony Cricchio, 80, co-owner of popular Little Italy restaurant

March 04, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Anthony "Nino" Cricchio, who with his brother turned Caesar's Den into one of Little Italy's most popular restaurants, died Wednesday of a heart attack at Union Memorial Hospital. He was 80.

The longtime Original Northwood resident was born and raised in Palermo, Sicily, the son of a ship-carpenter father and dressmaker mother.

Mr. Cricchio graduated from a trade school with a degree in diesel engineering. He had served in the Italian Navy during World War II until being discharged in 1945.

In 1948, he immigrated to Little Italy, and worked as a bricklayer. In 1954, he married Santina Presti, whose parents owned the Spring Garden, a bar at Central Avenue and Lombard Street.

In addition to working construction, Mr. Cricchio helped his in-laws in the bar.

In 1957, he persuaded his brother, Domenico "Mimmo" Cricchio, formerly a seaman, to come to Baltimore.

In 1969, Mimmo Cricchio purchased a defunct cafe in the 200 block of S. High St. and, with Mr. Cricchio's help, renovated the building that opened as Caesar's Den a year later with seating for 60.

"They literally built Caesar's Den brick by brick," said Mary Ann Cricchio, Mr. Cricchio's sister-in-law, who is president of the Little Italy Restaurant Association and past president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

"They were standing in the old cafe, leaned against the wall and it moved. So they had to rip it down and rebuild it brick by brick. They didn't stand around supervising the work, they actually did it," she said.

With the purchase of a rowhouse next door, the restaurant expanded its seating to 200. Mimmo Cricchio, who had been the restaurant's chef and owner, sold it to his brother in 1982.

In 1984, Mimmo Cricchio opened Da Mimmo at 217 S. High St., which he continues to own and operate.

"Nino was a wonderful man and he always worked real hard. I wished he had a longer life, but we all have our destiny. And because I am the youngest, he was like a second father to me," said his brother.

Mr. Cricchio continued to work at Caesar's Den until a few months ago, making sure that all of the restaurant's equipment was in top operating order.

"He liked fixing things and didn't care to be the center of attention," said Guido DeFranco, his son-in-law and the restaurant's chef.

Mr. Cricchio's routine seldom varied: He arrived at the restaurant in late morning, ate a light lunch, checked the equipment and returned home to eat dinner with his wife.

He'd return to the restaurant about 9 p.m., take up his station at the same table near the bar, greeting and speaking to guests, while eating a bowl of pasta with marinara sauce and sipping a glass of chilled rose wine mixed with a little Coca-Cola. He closed the restaurant later in the evening.

"He really was a very simple and unpretentious man who loved telling stories about Italy and his childhood there," said his daughter, Maria Christina "Tina" De Franco, who lives with her husband, Guido, in an apartment above the restaurant.

"When Nino would eat, he'd always close his eyes and chew, and when you asked why he did that, he'd say, `I'm savoring the flavor of the food and when I close my eyes, it tastes even better,'" she said.

In his youth, Mr. Cricchio played soccer in Italy, and he remained an enthusiast, watching and taping games that he shared with family members.

Mr. Cricchio was a strong supporter of his community and St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church in Little Italy, where he was a regular at the 5:30 p.m. Saturday Mass, and where a Mass of Christian burial was offered Saturday.

In addition to his wife, daughter and brother, other survivors include a son, the Rev. Santo Cricchio, O.F.M., of Washington; a sister, Melina Scebba of Palermo; and two grandchildren.

Sun staff writer Sheridan Lyons contributed to this article.

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