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Carmela Sbarro, pizza company matriarch, dies

Carmela Sbarro, co-founder of Sbarro's Italian Resturants.

Carmela Sbarro, co-founder of Sbarro's Italian Resturants. Credit: Handout

Before there was Sbarro's pizzeria, there was Sbarro's Salumeria. It was a traditional Italian deli that Carmela and Gennaro Sbarro opened in Brooklyn, after moving there from Naples in the late 1950s. There were cured meats, the prosciutto was fresh and cheese dangled from the ceiling.

Eventually, the deli took over the block. The family expanded to pizza-making, and Carmela Sbarro, who ran the company with her husband and three sons, became the face of an international chain.

"She was the company's mascot. She was 'Mama Sbarro,' " said granddaughter Carmela Merendino, 48, of Melville. "She was everybody's mama. People from all over would say, 'Hi, Mama.' "

Sbarro died Saturday in an assisted-living home in Huntington Terrace, where she had lived for the past eight years. She was 90 and had dementia, her son Mario said.

Sbarro's turned to the pizza-making business in the 1970s. By selling gourmet Italian ingredients to neighboring immigrants, the family had found a niche in the marketplace. When the other Sbarro stores popped up -- in the quick service, cafeteria-style mold -- the delicatessen was dropped.

But the suburbs and the malls offered a more lucrative business opportunity. "The shopping malls were beginning to develop in the '50s; this was the town square, the center of town in the community," Mario said. "We saw an opportunity to serve a wider audience."

When a Sbarro opened up in Lake Grove, many Long Islanders formerly from Brooklyn remembered Carmela. Patrons would shout, "You catered my first Communion, my engagement," Mario, 70, of Mill Neck, remembered.

Over the years at Sbarro, Carmela played a number of roles. She oversaw food production for the Melville-based company and was in charge of quality control. The Brooklyn location, though, was "where you'd find her," Merendino said. She'd serve customers sandwiches alongside a very large slice of cheesecake, and worked there into her 80s, preparing meats and desserts.

"She was a typical grandma," Merendino said. "She'd try to take care of everyone and feed them." And she'd ask customers, 'Do you want a drink? You look like you're hungry.' "

Carmela started working in a Naples butcher shop before she was 10 years old. Across the street is where her future husband worked. She married Gennaro when she was 17. In 1956, they moved overseas.

The first Sbarro resembled the shops they used to work in, and they stood out in Brooklyn.

"Everything evolved from what they did in Italy," Merendino said. "Everything evolved from tradition."

The family sold the company in 2007, and the shop in Brooklyn closed in 2004 when Carmela suffered a stroke.

She was predeceased by her husband, who died in 1984. She is also survived by sons Joseph, 72, of Manhattan; Anthony, 66, of Northport; 13 grandchildren, and 33 great-grandchildren.

A Mass will be offered at 9:45 a.m. Monday at St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church in Dix Hills, followed by a burial at Pinelawn Memorial Park in Pinelawn.

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