BUFFALO, NY Funeral Services will be held Monday for the founder of a Buffalo-based food empire.
La Nova Pizza founder Joseph Todaro was 89 when he died after a brief illness on Wednesday.
His grandson, who now manages La Nova, told WGRZ the pizza patriarch was just in the shop a few weeks ago, checking on things as he sometimes did, since his semi-retirement several years before.
As a west side, native, former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello grew up knowing the elder Todaro and his family.
"I saw him about a month ago at the shop (on West Ferry Street ) and he'd be in the back room he had his own style and personality and he was a real Buffalo character, there's no question about it," Masiello told Two on Your Side. "But think about it...he built a tremendous empire from a little pizzeria and his pizza and wings are known nationally."
Indeed, the Buffalo favorites were once served to President Bill Clinton during a 1999 visit to the Queen City and today La Nova, one of the nation's largest independent pizzerias, is a $30 million a year business with its products shipped worldwide.
Another "west side kid", who says he was weaned on La Nova Pizza and wings, was former County Executive Joel Giambra.
"It's incredible to see how they created this empire from this little, small, tiny business," Giambra said.
However, for decades, Todaro was also the subject of numerous federal probes, amid allegations was an underworld crime boss.
And though a target of the government at various times since the 1960's, and while charged at various times with everything from consorting with known criminals to income tax evasion, he was never convicted of a single crime.
"Was he (Todaro) involved back in the day when Stefano Magaddino ran the outfit? Yeah, for sure," said Mike Hudson, Founding Editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter and the author "Mob Boss", which is perhaps the definitive work on the mafia in Western New York.
"There was always the question with Joe, whether he went straight and went in the pizza business, or became the boss. The people who say he did, which include the FBI, say he took the chair in 1984," said Hudson during a telephone interview from Los Angeles.
Hudson said he had spoken to Todaro on several occasions while writing his book.
"He maintained that anything he ever did was far in the past and that he made something with his life, and certainly after 40 years of trying, the Feds were never able to prove any differently," Hudson said.
"Being in political life for 25 years I'm very much accustomed to rumors and innuendos," said Giambra. "There were many attempts by law enforcement to try and prove the Todaro family was involved in something other than pizza, and as far as I know they were not very successful."
Both Giambra and Masiello, like many others, believe Todaro should be remembered for his heart, which they believe was even bigger than the successful business empire he created.
These include his charitable efforts, such as opening his restaurant every year to feed the poor on St. Joseph's Day, and his willingness to give others a chance, providing perhaps thousands of teenagers over the decades with their first job.
"A lot of people that quite frankly, wouldn't be hirable anywhere else were welcome at La Nova and they worked and they worked hard," recalled Masiello.
"He had a big heart and he gave back to the community when a lot of people don't, and to me that's something he should be recognized for," Masiello said.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 10:30 a.m. Monday in St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, 200 St. Gregory Court at Maple Road, Amherst.
Click on the video player to watch our story from 2 on Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Bill Boyer.
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