It was rare that Joseph Piazza used radio, television or newspaper advertisements to get the word out about Cafe di Napoli, the Italian restaurant he ran on Hennepin Avenue for more than 60 years. He let his entrees and customers do the talking.
"My dad's philosophy was to give a lot of food, a quality product and good service to get repeat customers," said Piazza's son, David, of Golden Valley. "That was the best form of advertising, and he never wavered from that philosophy."
Piazza, who had Parkinson's disease, died of natural causes Thursday at daughter Nancy Piazza's home in Edina. He was 92.
He opened the iconic restaurant in 1938, and served heaping portions of spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna and other dishes smothered in his signature sweet home-style red sauce to celebrities such as Laurel and Hardy, the Andrews Sisters and George Clooney. Politicians such as former Gov. Rudy Perpich and former Vice President Walter Mondale and baseball star Ted Williams dined there, too. In its heyday in the 1950s through the early 1970s, the restaurant with elaborate murals was a favorite of downtown shoppers, workers and moviegoers who knew Cafe di Napoli as "the place to go," David said. Military personnel knew they could get a good meal there.
"He was very kind to veterans," said his grandson, Nick. "He'd pick up the check for those in uniform."
A fire at the adjoining Anthony Hotel in the 1970s threatened his restaurant, but even with smoke damage, no heat and the eyes of the state Health Department on him, Piazza continued to cook. "That was a victory in light of the catastrophe," his son said.
The economic downturn of the late '70s and early '80s, and Hennepin Avenue's growing reputation as a dangerous street, led to a slow decline in patronage. Piazza closed the restaurant in 2005, but it briefly made a return as a lunch outlet in the skyway level at 6th Street and Marquette Avenue S. from 2007 to 2008. While in business, Piazza was known for using the family car to deliver catered meals to schools and churches.
Born in Minneapolis, Piazza attended DeLaSalle High School and the University of Minnesota. After he opened his diner, Piazza was drafted into the Army during World War II. His job was to keep soldiers throughout Europe, North Africa and Sicily fed. He attained the rank of technical sergeant.
He was a founding member of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Golden Valley in the 1950s, and an active member of the Golden Valley Lions Club, the Golden Valley Knights of Columbus and the American Legion.
In addition to his son and daughter, Piazza is survived by his wife, Dolores Kauth-Piazza, of St. Louis Park; two other daughters, Donna Piazza, of St. Anthony, and Carol Marnell, of Hudson, Wis.; a stepdaughter, Susan Wasserman, of Minnetonka; a brother, Gerald, of Greenfield; eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife of 62 years, Genevieve.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Good Shepherd Catholic Church, 145 Jersey Av. S., Golden Valley. Visitation will take be from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at Gearty-Delmore Funeral Chapel, 15800 37th Av. N., Plymouth, and one hour before services at the church.