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Alfio Gaglianese, old-school restaurateur famous for his Caesar salads, dies at 85

He was the longtime maitre d' at Da Vinci in Center City, followed by a long run at Alfio's in Montgomery County.

Alfio Gaglianese in a promotional photo taken by son Fernando.
Alfio Gaglianese in a promotional photo taken by son Fernando.Read moreFERNANDO GAGLIANESE

Alfio Gaglianese, 85, who brought a showman’s flair to his restaurants by infusing his tableside Caesar salads with a heavy side of shtick, died Friday, Sept. 25, at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery in East Norriton after a short illness.

He lived for many years in Roslyn and Plymouth Meeting before moving with his wife of 60 years, Elsa, into Shannondell, a retirement community in Audubon, Montgomery County.

To a generation of restaurant patrons in Center City at Da Vinci and later at his Alfio’s restaurants, first in Jenkintown and later in Glenside, Mr. Gaglianese embodied the picture of the Old World maitre d' — suave and debonair in his 40-short tuxedo, and possessing all the tools of the trade: a photographic memory, quick wit, ready cigarette lighter, and numerous coin and handkerchief magic tricks.

Mr. Gaglianese most notably was the master of the Caesar salad, which he learned to make as a young man in Argentina. He measured his productivity by the enormous wooden salad bowls he went through. At a couple hundred salads each week, he estimated in 1995, his bowl would develop a hole in its bottom about every two years.

Mr. Gaglianese’s son Richard said his father will be cremated with a bowl and a fork.

“He was a character," he said. "He’d rather us being laughing than crying.” Mr. Gaglianese was in good general health until last month, his son said, entertaining customers at Ana’s Corner Store in East Norriton, his daughter Ana Ferry’s deli.

Alfio’s menu in Glenside reflected his sense of fun. One signature dish was called Alfio’s First Wife, which was veal medallions with crabmeat, asparagus spears, and mozzarella in marinara with a side of angel hair pasta. When customers raised an eyebrow, he explained that his first wife was indeed his current and only wife. After he and Elsa renewed their vows in 2010, on their 50th anniversary, he introduced her as his first and second wife, their son said.

“His whole life was family,” Richard Gaglianese said. Ferry said he was told just hours before his death that her daughter, Shannon Dillon, had delivered Jameson, his first great-grandson. “My father already met the baby on his way to heaven,” she said.

Richard Gaglianese described his father as “tough but fair when we were growing up. He wanted you to be better, just like he was. He picked one thing he was good at, and he made it better.”

Mr. Gaglianese was born Feb. 18, 1935, in San Pietro Apostolo, Italy. At 19, he, his father, and two brothers moved to Argentina. Mr. Gaglianese worked in a factory — a job he didn’t mind, he said in a 1980 interview.

“When I was through, I would come home and my hands were all filthy and the dirt would stay under my nails and then when I would dress up and take out the pretty girls I would feel that I could not look good compared to how delicate they were,” he said. During a strike at the factory, he took a job at an elegant restaurant and was enthralled with the clientele.

Mr. Gaglianese married Elsa Ronelli in 1960 and they had five children, adopting his brother’s son Fernando in the mid-1990s when his parents died.

The Gaglianese family moved to the Philadelphia area in 1963, and Mr. Gaglianese couldn’t speak English. He found work as a groundskeeper at Morris Arboretum seven days a week for $67, he said. As he picked up the language, he got a job as a busboy at a Center City hotel and later became a waiter and then maitre d' at Da Vinci, a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant at 2007 Walnut St., now the site of the Irish Pub.

In the 1980 interview, while at Da Vinci, he rued the state of waiting tables. “Most of the waiters today, they don’t want to learn anything,” he said. “They just want to take your order and go into the kitchen and have a little coffee or something and make their money and go home. They are not proud of the job. You have to be proud of your job.”

When Da Vinci closed in 1983, the Gaglianeses, with Elsa in the kitchen, converted a luncheonette in the old Benson East in Jenkintown into a restaurant. They moved Alfio’s into a converted house on Limekiln Pike in Glenside in 1987. The children all worked for him.

After closing Alfio’s in 2002, he helped out at various restaurants owned by friends. Until recently, he put on a tux one weekend a month and made salad at Ana’s Corner Store.

Besides his son Richard and daughter Ana Ferry, he is survived by his wife, Elsa; sons Alberto and Fernando; daughters Beatriz and Liliana; 14 grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Services: Viewing will be 9:30 to 10:45 a.m. Friday, Oct. 2, at Epiphany of Our Lord, 3050 Walton Rd., Plymouth Meeting. Mass, which will be livestreamed, will follow.

The art of the Caesar salad, according to Alfio Gaglianese

Though Mr. Gaglianese’s patter was unique, his salad technique was straightforward: Use a fork to crush a medium garlic clove against the sides of the bowl, add about 4 tablespoons of olive oil, black pepper, and several anchovy fillets, and then sweep the fork against the sides of the bowl to create a paste. (A true Caesar salad, Mr. Gaglianese said, should not have whole anchovies, and any large garlic chunks should be discarded.) Next comes the juice of half a lemon, which he’d squeeze fresh, followed by a whole raw egg (this was optional), a teaspoon of dry mustard, and a tablespoon of red wine vinegar. Mix well. Add leaves of cold romaine lettuce, which he’d shred with the forks. To finish, add croutons and perhaps grated Romano cheese, which Mr. Gaglianese preferred over Parmesan.

The art of the waiter, according to Alfio Gaglianese

“When you go into a restaurant and sit down, the waiter should be right there," Mr. Gaglianese said in 1980. "If you take out a cigarette, he should be there with a light. He should ask if anyone would like a drink. You don’t say something like, ‘Do you want anything from the bar?’ When you come with drinks, you should never say ‘Who ordered the martini?’ A good waiter has a good memory. He knows who ordered the martini. If you have five or six people at a table, you should remember them all. When I come out of the kitchen, I have the plates for the table already arranged in the order I will put them down. I always start with the lady. If there is no lady, you should start with the oldest man. You should know from your own experience every dish on the menu. If there is a special for that day you should go into the kitchen and taste it. If it is no good, you don’t have to say anything to the chef, but you should not recommend it. People will not come back if you recommend something bad. If someone does not like the food, you ask them what is wrong, then you get them something else. You never argue with a customer; you just replace the dish.”