Vincenzo Della Torre, who survived the sinking of the Andrea Doria in 1956 then went on to own Syosset’s classic Italian Caracalla Ristorante until it burned down in 2012, died Sunday from lung cancer. The Hicksville resident was 83.
Della Torre was born in Castiglione di Sicilia in Sicily, the eldest of four children. When he was 16, his daughter Adelaide Freda said, he moved to Switzerland to attend culinary school, after which he accepted a job cooking in Venezuela.
His next position was as an assistant saucier aboard the SS Andrea Doria, the Italian ocean liner that famously sank near Nantucket after hitting another cruise ship, the MS Stockholm. In 1992, he told a Newsday reporter that he had been off duty when the crash occurred. He felt the lurch and tremble, and heard the screams of the passengers before he “swung down a rope into a lifeboat and . . . watched as the main deck of the 10-deck Andrea Doria dipped below the waves.”
Della Torre was among more than 1,600 survivors. (At least 46 people were killed.)
Back on dry land, Della Torre took a job with Hilton Hotels and moved to Montreal. There he met his wife, Maria, and the couple had two daughters, Adelaide and Severina. In 1967, Della Torre accepted a job at the New York Hilton in Manhattan, but in 1974 he headed out to Long Island to open his own restaurant. After a few years each at La Lanterna in Hewlett, Bocaccio in Hicksville and Rossini in Freeport, he hit his stride in 1984 with Caracalla, on Jericho Turnpike in Syosset.
Named after the magnificent Roman baths built in the third century AD, there was nothing rustic or casual about Caracalla. The ornate dining room featured a painting of the doomed ship — and the salmon-and-sturgeon buffet that was being served when the crash occurred. In a 1997 review, Newsday’s Peter M. Gianotti praised the restaurant’s “venerable dishes, offered with professional aplomb, in a serene setting.”
Over the years, Della Torre hosted a number of dinners at Caracalla for fellow Andrea Doria survivors. In 2012, the restaurant burned down. Freda said that her father had spent the past three years gardening and spending time with — and cooking for — the family.
Freda said that as a restaurateur, her father “wasn’t always fond of changing with the times.” At Caracalla, he selected his own fish and produce, butchered his own meat, and carved tomatoes into roses and lemons into swans. “On very rare occasions,” she recalled, “he made his own ice sculptures.” Added her husband, Tom Freda: “Dinner wasn’t just a meal for him. It was a reason for family or friends to separate themselves from the world for a few hours.”
Della Torre is survived by Maria, his wife of 54 years; his daughter Adelaide and her husband, Tom Freda of Orlando, Florida; his daughter Severina and her husband, Sergio Oliverio of Melville; five grandchildren; and three siblings.
The family is receiving visitors Tuesday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at the Charles J. O’Shea Funeral Home in East Meadow. A burial Mass will be celebrated at St. Ignatius Loyola R.C. Church in Hicksville on Wednesday at 9:45 a.m.