`One big family' joins in celebration of chef's `sweet life'

Mimmo Cricchio remembered by many for bold style and taste

October 01, 2003|By Carl Schoettler and Rob Kasper | Carl Schoettler and Rob Kasper,SUN STAFF

Little Italy restaurant owner Mimmo Cricchio went to his reward yesterday just the way he wanted - wearing his white chef's jacket, in a funeral cortege led by yellow and red Ferraris and serenaded by an operatic tenor singing "My Way."

Cricchio, 70, died Friday at a hospice in Towson. He'd run his Da Mimmo restaurant with his wife, Mary Ann, for about 20 years on High Street, about a block and a half from St. Leo's Catholic Church. He was the honored Chef Mimmo who pleased his diners with veal chops, lobster with pasta and his big heart.

His funeral Mass at St. Leo's was a grand reunion of an extended family of friends, relatives and very satisfied diners. The congregation saluted their Mimmo with a standing ovation "for a life well-lived."

"This neighborhood is not just a community," said Roberto Marsili, a neighborhood politician. "It's one big family."

Mimmo's nephew and godson, the Rev. Santo Cricchio, celebrated the Mass. Mimmo's son, Domenico Jr., 12, served at the altar in white surplice and cassock, and carried the cross in the procession to and from the altar. He served diligently and listened intently, his face solemn and serious.

Santo Cricchio's late father, Anthony, brought Mimmo to America from Sicily, and was his partner in Caesar's Den, which they opened in 1970 at High and Stiles streets. The priest's mother, Santina, still runs Caesar's Den. Mimmo struck out on his own in the early 1980s.

Mimmo practiced the dishes he would serve at his new restaurant while he was living with Jimmy Vaccaro, who started the pastry shop that bears his name at Stiles and Albemarle streets. They were both Sicilians from Palermo, paisanos.

"He tried out new recipes," said Nick Vaccaro, Jimmy's son and proprietor of the shop now. "He cooked for 40 people. He didn't know how to cook for two."

As people arrived for the Mass, James Harp, the chorus master for the Baltimore Opera Company, played the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, then Va, Pensiero from Verdi's Nabucco and Paul Anka's "My Way."

"He played the intermezzo for Cavelleria since Mimmo was a Sicilian," said Michael Harrison, the general director of the opera, who sang "My Way." "That's a Sicilian opera. He loved all the Italian opera."

Chef Mimmo often kept his restaurant open late to serve the singers from the opera after their performances.

"I loved the veal chops," Harrison says. "And the lobster with pasta was out of this world."

Both Luciano Pavarotti and Paul Anka ate at the restaurant when they played Baltimore. Other celebrity diners included Bob Hope, Billy Joel, Tony Bennett, Anne Bancroft, Faye Dunaway, Beverly Sills and David Bowie, not to mention local stars Cal Ripken and Jim Palmer, a regular also enamored of the veal chops charboiled with garlic, rosemary and sage.

Pavarotti was a talented diner, Mary Ann Cricchio once told Sun writer Ken Fuson for a 1997 article. He could eat with one hand and sign autographs with the other.

At yesterday's Mass, soprano Laura Vicari of the Baltimore Opera sang Schubert's Ave Maria during the offertory and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Pie Jesu at the final commendation.

Cardinal William Keeler offered condolences in both English and Italian before the Mass. And before he began his homily, the Rev. Michael Salerno, the energetic pastor at St. Leo's, bounded down the aisle to recognize Mayor Martin O'Malley. Former Mayor Thomas A. D'Alesandro III, who was born in Little Italy, stood in the back. Among the host of political figures were City Council President Sheila Dixon and Clarence Mitchell III, the patriarch of West Baltimore politics.

Mimmo told me a lot of stars ate in his restaurant, Salerno said in his homily.

"I didn't know from stars," the priest said, as he stood by the coffin in the aisle before the sanctuary. "I know now, Mimmo, you are with heavenly stars in Paradise."

In her eulogy, Marcia Harris, president and chief executive officer of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said: "Mimmo knew he lived the sweet life.

"La dolce vita," she said. "He embraced life with both arms."

His willingness to enjoy himself was one of the most appealing aspects of Mimmo's personality, Harris said in an interview at the viewing Monday, where many restaurateurs from across the city paid their respects.

"He wasn't going to wait for the sweet life," she said. "He knew he was smack dab in the middle of it."

The Ferraris were perhaps emblematic of his flair for living. The yellow Ferrari was his birthday gift, the red one was his wife's. In his definitive instructions for his funeral he wanted the bright sports cars, but no funereal black limousine, in the procession to the cemetery. Mary Ann Cricchio drove the yellow Ferrari; Masood Masoodi, the manager of Da Mimmo's, the red.

"Mimmo was in touch with his heart," said restaurant owner and caterer Tom Stuehler, another eulogist. "He delighted in the enjoyment of his guests. ... Mimmo's food was an extension of himself that he delighted in sharing with all who would partake."

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