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Elio Sgambati, retired Italian chef and restaurateur, dies at 76

He made his mark in the mid-1980s at the old Il Gallo Nero. He sold his last restaurant, Hosteria da Elio, in 2016.

Elio Sgambati in a family photograph.
Elio Sgambati in a family photograph.Read moreCOURTESY SGAMBATI FAMILY

Elio Sgambati, 76, a chef and restaurateur who brought the cooking of his native Italy to Philadelphia in the 1980s, died Tuesday, Dec. 22, of congestive heart failure.

Mr. Sgambati, born in Naples, retired from the restaurant business in May 2016 when he sold Hostaria da Elio, his quaint, modest trattoria on Third Street near South, after 15 years.

It was rare to dine at Hostaria da Elio without his stopping at your table to chat. He made terrific pasta dishes, notably gnocchi and lasagna — and would tell you this with pride, in the next breath recommending his spectacular desserts, such as tiramisu.

He and his wife, Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, met in Rome shortly after she arrived to study at Temple University’s campus there. He helped her and a friend move into their apartment, said his son, Michele. At the time, he owned a restaurant with his brother.

They were married in 1976 and moved to her hometown of Philadelphia in 1985 to find a reading specialist for their son. “The idea was to stay for a year or two, but things fell into place,” said his wife, a literary consultant and founder of the African American Children’s Book Project. The couple had been separated for 28 years, she said, but remained on good terms.

Arriving in Philadelphia, Mr. Sgambati became chef at Il Gallo Nero, then a destination Italian restaurant on 15th Street near Latimer. “He loved the simplicity of the food and connecting with people,” his wife said.

Mr. Sgambati went on to cook at other restaurants, including Bistro Romano in Society Hill and Spiga D’Oro in Primos. He and a partner owned Cafe Calamari at 16th and Chancellor Streets in Center City, before he opened Hostaria da Elio by himself in 2001.

When Michele was a teen, his father brought him to work as a busboy, teaching him that hard work pays off.

“The only way to see him for a while was to either stay up late at night with him and watch Benny Hill, or to go to work with him,” his son said. “That’s when I developed a love-hate relationship with restaurateuring.”

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Sgambati is survived by a daughter-in-law, Tavia Sgambati, and granddaughter, Giuliana Sgambati.

A funeral Mass is planned for 10 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 7, at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, 6315 Lancaster Ave., Philadelphia. Burial will be private.