Remembering the Meatball Man
Tony Cafaro leaves a legacy beyond the kitchen - By Frank Ruggiero
Joe Cafaro's lucky day is unlike others. It's not a spontaneous happening, but rather a marked item on a calendar.
To Cafaro, Nov. 27 is that day. For one, it's the day his restaurant, Joe's Italian Kitchen, was incorporated 10 years ago. It's also the day he married his wife, Cindy. But closer to his heart, it's his father's birthday. Anthony "Tony" Cafaro, popularly known as "The Meatball Man" of Joe's Italian Kitchen, died Nov. 7. Tony would have been 87 years old Nov. 27 and, per usual, would have arrived that morning at the restaurant to start work on his trademark meatballs.
"There's just something in the blood," Joe Cafaro said. "Making meatballs is an art. You work the ingredients, and you know when it's done."
Tony knew, never measuring the ingredients, always able to eye just the right amount. For a man of modest heigh, at 4'11", Tony leaves behind some rather sizable shoes to fill.
"One of the things I've learned from Dad, which I'm trying to practice the most, is patience," Cafaro said. "Dad never got upset about anything, he never got mad. I take after my mother more, getting mad at everything. Now that he's gone, I say to myself, 'What would Dad do?'"
Family friend Ben Frantzen would wager a guess: Work.
"Tony used to talk about Rockfeller Center (in New York City), how he used to work there," Frantzen said. "He was a hard worker, that's all he knew- that and family, it was all about family."
Frantzen and others gathered at a memorial celebration Nov. 9 at Joe's Italian Kitchen, sharing stories and the final batch of Tony's famous meatballs.
"He's going to be missed beyond words," Frantzen said. "He was a great man, one of the humble, quiet heroes."
And that involved tinkering, Cafaro said. Though Tony achieved High Country fame for his edibles, he was a handyman at heart.
"He took things apart and put them back together again," Cafaro said. "Ever since I was a little kid, I can remember him sitting there, taking a toaster apart, and then putting it back, just so he could learn how it worked."
Cafaro grew up in Bensonhurst, N.Y., Brooklyn's Little Italy. He remembers his father, born in Manhattan to Italian immigrants, telling him about days of pushcarts and mom and pop stores. "We had a lot of neighborhood places, so when you went in, they all knew your name," Cafaro said.
Tony didn't just work at Rockefeller Center, but helped in its construction, and was also a member of the Steam Fitters Union.
"He spent most of his life there building things," Cafaro said, " repairing things, repairing vans bigger than him- not that he was a big man. Dad was a very hard worker, never called in sick, went in if it snowed. I learned that from my dad; just work till you drop, that's all there is to it. They dont make them like that anymore."
This applied to Tony's tenure in Boone, when he and wife Helen moved to the High Country to live near their son. As a kid, Cafaro was introduced to the restaurant business by his Uncle Sammy, who ownd a luncheonette in the city.
Cafaro later followd suit, and Tony was more than willing to help.
"Dad cooked just like all of us," Cafaro said. "We learned at a very young age to cook and help our parents. That meatball receipe goes to his mother's in Calabria (Italy), so we're looking at five generations of making the same meatballs."
That tradition didn't change, nor did some of Tony's habits.
"(My parents) were used to walking to all the stores,"Cafaro said. "But here, it was a different world, and I had to explain to Ma, we're going shopping once a week, that's it. They're used to going to the store, buying a quart of milk for lunch."
But that didn't deter them. When Tony and Helen were living at Bavarian Village off Blowing Rock Road, the couple would walk to Walmart to buy milk, bread and a box of doughnuts every day.
"And a lot of people knew Dad," Cafaro said. "He'd be walking to Walmart, and someone would come up to him and say, 'Hey, Tony the Meatball Man!' He'd say he was more popular here than in Brooklyn."
Area restaurant Jimmy Crippen agrees.
"From the get-go, Joe's dad was right in here," Crippen said. "When Joe introduced me, he said, 'Dad's in charge of making the meatballs.' I said, 'Finally, someone who knows how to make meatballs in this town."
As former Watauga Red Cross director Sonny Sweet would attest, it wasn't just about Tony's meatballs, but rather his presence. When Joe's first opened, Sweet and a group of friends started eating there every Friday of the year, "and Tony became a very big part of that," he said. "Tony was a friendly old boy, would come over every day before we left, see if we needed anything at all."
"He made everyone feel comfortable," Cafaro said. "
"In the old neighborhood where we grew up, he was the guy that everyone came to fix things...They came to Dad."
On certain occasions, however, Tony would come to others, like former Joe's employee, Carrie Richards.
"One day, he came up to me, "she said," He said,' I taught my son how to cook, so he could feed himself. Now, my son is cooking to feed an entire town.' And then he shuffled off.
It's a father's pride that Cafaro will always honor. "We'll never change anything here at Joe's," he said. "I grew up with this food, it's our tradition. Everybody's asking, 'Who's making the meatballs?' I am, of course, who else is going to make them?"
After all, "What would Dad do?"Tony Cafaro is survived by his wife of 63 years, Helen Cafaro; his two sons, Joe Cafaro and wife Cindy, and Gustave Cafaro.