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Modesto DiRaimo, owner of Huntington pizzeria, dies at 83

Modesto DiRaimo in 2010.

Modesto DiRaimo in 2010. Photo Credit: Maryellen DiRaimo

The Islanders had just won the last of their four straight Stanley Cups when goalie Billy Smith asked Modesto DiRaimo to stop by his house one afternoon.

The two often talked in what amounted to DiRaimo's corner office — the small booth at the pizza place DiRaimo, his brother Annibale, and their wives owned in Huntington.  That's where DiRaimo could be found daily, holding court with friends, family and his customers: police, politicians, priests, professional athletes.  

DiRaimo told his kids of the conversation with the Hall of Fame goalie: "Billy wants to take me to his house to show me something." As DiRaimo's son, Joseph, told the story this week, when his dad returned, he expected there would be tales of posing with the Stanley Cup.

"What cup?" Modesto DiRaimo said. "I went to his house to see his tomato plants that he was having trouble with."

As his given name suggested, friends and family this week recalled Modesto DiRaimo as a modest, virtuous man who lived his life by a simple philosophy: that hard work was important, that family and friends were more important, and that you needed to trust in people and do the right thing by them.

DiRaimo came to the United States from Pignataro Interamna, in the Province of Frosinone, Lazio, Italy, as a 24-year-old, arriving in New York Harbor aboard a ship named the S.S. Constitution on the Fourth of July, 1960.

As if that weren't storybook enough, he worked three jobs to make ends meet, including helping the build the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadow, before his wife, Elena (nee Manetta) spotted an ad in the Italian-language papers regarding a pizzeria for sale in Whitestone, Queens.

DiRaimo bought that pizza place in 1968, the first of nine he'd own, the last of which is DiRaimo Pizzeria on Wall Street in Huntington. DiRaimo's opened there in 1978, and four decades later remains a family-owned institution on the local food scene.

Modesto DiRaimo died Aug. 16 at his home in Woodbury following a brief illness. He was 83.

'FEED YOUR FAMILY'

Joseph DiRaimo recalled how, even if a customer didn't have the money to pay for a meal, his father would tell them to take it. "If people forgot their wallet, it wasn't an issue," he said his father told him. "He'd say, 'Go home, feed your family, pay me when you get it.'"

On an online memorial site this week, friends and customers posted condolences recalling DiRaimo, his pizza, and mostly, that kindness.

One man recounted how he and his wife became customers at DiRaimo's when the store first opened, a tradition handed down to their children and now their grandchildren. Another wrote how 40 years after he'd first eaten at DiRaimo's, he still makes time to stop in and order a pie every time he comes back to Huntington — from his home in California.

"If he wasn't grabbing us a slice," one woman wrote of DiRaimo, "then I fondly remember him sitting by the back corner booth, near the back side door. I live states away for many years now, and haven't been back in years; but I know there will never be another like him. He will be dearly missed."

Born Oct. 26, 1935, Modesto DiRaimo was one of five children of Vittoria and Guiseppe DiRaimo: second to elder sister Alba; followed by sister Rosa, brother Annibale, known as Joe, and sister Elena. As a young child in war-torn Italy, Joseph DiRaimo said, his father witnessed the famed World War II bombing of Monte Cassino and later saw his own father dragged off to prison camp by German soldiers.

Guiseppe DiRaimo somehow managed to escape. All of which, Joseph DiRaimo said, taught his then-9-year-old father the importance of family.

"My father showed his love of humanity by his acts of kindness throughout his life," Joseph wrote in his eulogy, adding: "He had learned early in his life that family and friends are the most important part of a man's existence."

The young Modesto later served as a private in the Italian army, learning to drive tanks and serving as a driver chauffeuring generals and other dignitaries, Joseph said. Following his service, he drove a tractor that he used to plow the fields of local farmers in Pignataro, often working seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day.

He met Elena Manetta at a tavern her family owned in Pignataro. She'd just come back from America, where she was in the process of becoming a citizen, and the two fell in love. That was 1959. A few months later the two were married, and not long after, Modesto was on the S.S. Constitution bound for New York.

Interestingly, Modesto's brother Annibale later married Elena's sister, Guiseppina. The four would later become partners at DiRaimo's in Huntington.

AN EXPLOSIVE ARRIVAL

Daughter Maryellen Ragusa said her father arrived in New York Harbor to the sound of explosions. Having lived through World War II — and not knowing anything about the Fourth of July — Maryellen said her father "thought it was gunfire and bombs going off in the street."

Before long, Modesto took work as a baker at Silvercup, also working in a factory making Chiclets chewing gum and at a construction job building the World's Fair.

One day in 1964, unaware of water-use restrictions due to an extended drought, Joseph DiRaimo said, his father was issued a citation by a New York City Sanitation inspector for washing the car outside his home on Junction Boulevard in Elmhurst, Queens. "My father asked if there was anything he could do to continue watering his garden and washing the car," Joseph said. "The inspector responded, 'Dig a well.'"

Nuance and sarcasm lost, Modesto DiRaimo took the man at his word. And the next day he and a friend drove to Long Island, buying a well pump, two shovels and a pick. Digging up the front lawn, DiRaimo hit groundwater at 22 feet and soon all his neighbors were lined up to wash their cars and get water for their gardens, Joseph DiRaimo said.

Then, of course, came the string of pizzerias, capped by DiRaimo's in Huntington.

Fans loved the place because of the selection of pies — Napolitana, Sicilian, white pizza, vegetable, among others — but also because of the brothers, Modesto and Annibale. And because of how Modesto held court at his booth.  

"DiRaimo's was Google before Google was Google," daughter Maryellen said. "You didn't just go to DiRaimo's to get food, you went to find out what was going on in Huntington."

"My father and uncle loved to sit at the special owners table located at the far corner of the pizzeria," son Joseph said. "This was his office, living room and hangout. He was the first to greet a customer when they walked in and the last person to say goodbye on the way out. . . . That's the way he wanted it. . . . That small booth became the pulse of the pizzeria."

Modesto DiRaimo, who lost his wife, Elena, to breast cancer on Easter Sunday 2001, is survived by son Joseph and his wife, Christine, of Huntington Bay; daughter Maryellen Ragusa and her husband, Joseph, of Woodbury; son Steven and his wife, Elizabeth, of Laurel Hollow; and grandchildren Victoria, Joseph, Modesto, Stefano, Elena and Lucia. Three of his siblings also survive; his sister Alba preceded him in death. 

Visiting was last week at Beney Funeral Home in Syosset with the funeral Mass Tuesday followed by entombment at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury.

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