Tony Cafaro: The Meatball Man's Legacy Lives On
By Jason Reagan
With the sudden death of Tony Cafaro, Boone lost more than just the famed "Meatball Man" of Joe's Italian Kitchen- the community lost a friend, a smiling face, a local celebrity and an example of why his generation is called the Greatest.
A nine-year fixture at his son's Italian bistro, Tony died on November 7 at the age of 86, 20 days shy of his 27th.
Since 2001, Tony made the meatballs that have helped make Joe Cafaro's restaurant a local mainstay. He also served as the restaurant's handyman and probably its more eager employee.
"Dad did everything. He made garlic bread, he cut the garlic, he made peppers and onion and chopped the parsley," Joe Cafaro said.
"Whatever we needed- if we needed a shelf built, he's build a shelf. If we needed a faucet fixed, he'd fix the faucet."
Fixing things, whether mechanical or culinary, was a guiding force in Tony's life. Born in New York City in 1923, Tony began cooking as a 13-year-old in Little Italy.
Although cooking has always been a central occupation in the Cafaro family, Tony spent his working career as a member of the steamfitters union at Rockefeller Center and was part of the building's construction crew.
"Dad was a laborer his whole life," Joe said.
"He was always fixing things. He liked to tinker a lot. He retired, but it didn't sit well with him," he said.
In a 2003 local interview, Tony told how he learned a generations-old meatball recipe from his mother. "My mother came from Italy when she was a little girl," he recalled. "It was her mother's recipe."
Although Joe learned most of his cooking from his mother, Helen, he credits his father with passing on the family meatball tradition.
In 2003, Tony said that his wife once gave him a choice years ago: "You can take Joe to church every Sunday, or you can make the meatballs and gravy."
Tony made the meatballs.
And he passed that skill down to Joe and perhaps inspired him to get into the restaurant business.
Tony's brother, Sam, owned a restaurant just around the corner from Macy's in Manhattan. The Cafaro family would gather for the holiday meals there, and Joe fell in love with the business.
"I got introduced to the restaurant when I was young, and I said, 'That's what I want to do when I grow up- I want to be like Uncle Sammy," Joe said.
Although Joe had cooked in restaurants, he took a break from his childhood love and worked as a computer engineer before opening Joe's Italian Kitchen in 2001.
Not only did Tony approve of the idea and would later become a key employee, he also helped fund the opening of Joe's with his own money.
After Joe relocated to Boone from Charlotte several years ago, Tony and Helen decided to follow, which led to Tony's second career. Before concerns about traffic and icy sidewalks became an issue, Tony would walk to work every day- a natural habit for a native New Yorker.
Shortly after Tony began his culinary duties, he quickly made a splash to Boone after he was featured in Joe's local television commercials and in several media articles.
"In New York, nobody knew who he was; here everybody knew who he was," Joe said. "He was the Meatball Man of Joe's." He added that people would often offer him rides to work when they saw him walking or stop him at a grocery store to say hello.
Tony was not only an eager employee- he also served as Joe's top quality-control expert.
In 2003, Tony said, "If (Joe) was missing something or if it was no good, I would tell him."
Today, a wreath, a burning candle and a few photos stand in front of a deli case as a silent testament of Tony Cafaro's life and passion, but life has to go on in a busy restaurant- people want to eat, the orders keep coming, and now Joe faces business as usual minus once extraordinary man but endowed with a legacy and love of good friends.
"I've been making the meatballs for the past week," Joe said through a few tears.
"I go back to his station where he worked, and I just look up to heaven and ask him to look over on me and make sure I'm doing it okay."
Even though the Meatball Man of Joe's won't be coming back to his station anymore, it seems he's left it in capable hands and passed on a part of his spirit."Dad never got mad," Joe said. "I fly off the handle pretty easily, but now I think, 'What would Dad do?'"