Russell Hunter Ciolli was as much a people guy as he was a pizza guy, known for the thin-crusted pies that came out of the coal oven at his restaurant, Grimaldi's in Garden City.
"He loved taking care of people," said Dean La Lima, a family spokesman. Ciolli, who lived in East Meadow and was the father of two young children, died Wednesday at 39 after a heart attack following a kickboxing class.
According to La Lima, manager at Grimaldi's, Ciolli graduated from Mineola High School in 1990 and the University of Rhode Island. He originally worked as a contractor, but pizza had become the family's lifeblood.
Ciolli's father, Frank, bought the Grimaldi's restaurant in Brooklyn from Patsy Grimaldi back in the 1980s. His brother, Joseph, opened a Grimaldi's in Scottsdale, Ariz., a decade later. It was upon returning from Arizona, after building the oven for his brother, that Ciolli decided to open a Grimaldi's restaurant close to his East Meadow home. Garden City seemed an ideal fit.
La Lima, who has known Ciolli since Ciolli was a teenager, described him as someone who would do anything asked of him, and more.
The day before Ciolli died, a friend told him he needed to put up drywall in his basement. Ciolli had the job done within an hour. Years earlier, on a chilly night, La Lima remarked that customers were complaining about the cold air coming through the front door at Grimaldi's. The next morning, La Lima arrived to find that Ciolli had built a vestibule.
Another fan of Ciolli was Jacqueline Goode, who served with him on the board of directors of the Garden City Chamber of Commerce. "Russell had been extremely generous in terms of devoting time and resources to the business community and the village," she said. He was named Business Person of the Year in 2009.
Goode and her family were regulars at Grimaldi's, where her 4-year-old son liked his pizza chopped in small bits. "No questions asked, Russell would deliver it that way and call it 'chop suey,' " she said, adding that Ciolli knew most customers' names and preferences.
Ciolli was also happy to patronize other pizzerias. Fred Lacagnina, owner of Salvatore's Coal Oven Pizza in Port Washington, recalls a visit from Ciolli several years back. "He came in with his family and introduced himself. He was a very nice guy, a gentleman."
Ciolli was buried Monday at Locust Valley Cemetery following a Mass at St. Aidan Church in Williston Park. Donations in his name can be made to the Wounded Warrior Veterans of America or the American Heart Association.