Prominent Long Island restaurateur William Francis Claudio Jr. had already lived a full life as a military pilot and officer, real estate and aircraft salesman, sometime movie actor and father of six when he joined the family business in 1990 as a co-owner of Claudio’s in Greenport.
He dove right into his new job, working at the landmark waterfront eatery six days a week, befriending customers and employees alike, and dining at the bar with his signature Manhattan, although rarely on seafood.
“As far as eating any kind of fish, he was under duress. That’s why we had such good steak,” Janice Claudio said of her husband of 40 years, who died Saturday at home in Greenport after a long illness. He was 81.
The landmark restaurant — with its main dining room and alfresco clam bar perched mere yards from the water’s edge — has long been a crown jewel of Greenport village. When the eatery changed hands in March 2018 after 148 years under the Claudio family to new owners, including well-known attorney Perry Weitz and his son, David, the business was cited as the nation’s oldest restaurant continuously owned by the same family.
Standing 6-foot-4 tall, Claudio was a raconteur who could mesmerize a room with war stories, and an avid flyer and boater who took his family on trips to Connecticut, said his daughter, Jamie Claudio of West Islip, vice president of marketing sales for tourism promotion agency Discover Long Island.
“My dad loved to go fast, whether he was in a fast car, a fast plane, a fast boat or simply living fast,” she said.
He was born July 5, 1938, at Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport (now part of Stony Brook Medicine), to William Claudio Sr., and Helen Patton Manwaring, a niece of World War II Army General George S. Patton. At age 18, Claudio enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, receiving an aeronautical engineering degree from Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology at St. Louis University in Missouri. He re-enlisted in 1963, graduated from pilot school and was stationed in Europe on nuclear alert during the Cold War. In Phan Rang, Vietnam, he flew more than 200 combat missions and was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 21 air medals.
After an honorable discharge in 1970 as a captain, Claudio sold real estate in Georgia and Colorado, and won a small role in Woody Allen’s ''Sleeper'' (1973), most of which ended up on the cutting room floor. Claudio received a master of science degree in business from Columbia University.
In 1980, he married Janice Berbrich of Old Bethpage and sold planes for Beechcraft Aircraft in Washington, D.C., before returning to Long Island as director of international marketing for defense contractor Hazeltine in Greenlawn. With the group of family members who purchased Claudio’s from his father, he expanded the complex to include crab shacks, retail and ice cream shops and a marina.
The family’s history dates to 1854 when whaler Manuel Claudio landed in town on the ship Neva from the Azores.
After 16 years, he saved enough to open Claudio's Tavern. The history that unfolded has extended to forays into French cuisine, the site's reported use as a bootlegging stop during Prohibition.
In addition to William Claudio's wife and daughter, he is survived by children, Anthony of Mattituck, Kathi Potts of Cleveland, Tennessee, William III of Scottsdale, Arizona, Michael, of Nashville, and Christopher, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida; five sisters, 14 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
A wake will be held Wednesday from 3 to 7 p.m. at Horton-Mathie Funeral Home in Greenport. A funeral service at 10 a.m. Thursday will be followed by burial at Cutchogue Cemetery.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled William Francis Claudio Jr.'s middle name.