Friends, employees and customers of Ethel Telesca, whose Once Upon a Moose cafe injected a quirky style into quaint Sea Cliff, described her as glamorous and gritty -- a Williamsburg native whose creative spirit and Brooklyn brass kept the eatery running for 36 years.
Telesca, who sold the cafe and moved to New Fairfield, Conn., six years ago, died April 12 at her daughter's Glen Head home after battling cancer. She was 90.
"She was pretty demanding because she had very high standards and her business meant a great deal to her," said Shirley Black of Sea Cliff, a longtime friend. "But she was also very glamorous. Even in the kitchen, she always had her high heels on and her makeup just right."
Rick Smith, a local businessman, said Telesca's presence had such a positive influence on Sea Cliff that when a prior owner planned to end her lease, he bought the building in 2003.
"It was decorated with all the whimsy of 'Alice in Wonderland,' " said Smith, owner of The Piano Exchange in nearby Glen Cove. "I was there six days a week for maybe 30 years. It was the highlight of my day."
Telesca was the fourth of six children born to the owner of a Williamsburg bookshop. She graduated from Washington Irving High School in Manhattan, where she studied fashion design. She married Jerome Balizer at 18 and they had two children. But after the marriage fell apart in the early 1950s, Telesca found herself scrambling as a single mother.
She took a job in Manhattan as an administrator for an organization that provided health care for union workers and eventually moved to Rego Park.
But a restless creativity nipped at Telesca. When she realized that Sea Cliff lacked an eatery to go with its bustling antique shops and galleries, she opened one in 1971.
Telesca furnished it with antiques, taking cues for its decor from her fashion background. Undaunted by municipal rules at the time that prevented her from cooking on the premises, she created a menu of sandwiches and salads.
Over the years, her quirky formula drew an odd cast of customers, including celebrities Natalie Portman and Yoko Ono. In 2001, her establishment was among several restaurants listed in "52 Most Romantic Dates in and Around New York City." A sushi bar now occupies the spot.
She is survived by her daughter, Ginger Hendler; a son, Ken Balizer, of Albuquerque; and a brother, Larry Kanter, of Manhattan. Oscar Telesca died in 2003.
"Never lazy, never bored, so much to do," Hendler said of her mother at an April 21 memorial gathering that drew nearly 100 people.