Celestino Gambino had an all-glass addition built onto his Southampton Village home to accommodate a large marble table, commercial ovens and a wood-burning stove.
He always sat at the head of the table, and his family—including his wife, Josephine, and their seven children and 19 grandchildren—surrounded him every Monday afternoon for dinner, explained Sabrina Manglaviti, one of his granddaughters.
Instead of enjoying a traditional Italian Sunday dinner, the Gambinos got together on Monday because it was their only day off from running La Parmigiana, the popular Italian restaurant on Hampton Road in Southampton that Mr. Gambino owned and operated for 36 years, Ms. Manglaviti said.
“It was a huge part of growing up,” Ms. Manglaviti, who currently works at the restaurant, said of her family’s Monday afternoon tradition. “It made me and my cousins so much closer.”
Mr. Gambino, who opened La Parmigiana in 1974, died last Thursday evening. He was 73.
Ms. Manglaviti’s “Nonno,” as she calls Mr. Gambino, started the restaurant after working for two years at Baby Moon restaurant in Westhampton Beach for his brothers, Peter and John Gambino. When La Parmigiana first opened, Mr. Gambino offered only spaghetti and meatballs and pizza, but his menu and business expanded as people began to appreciate his food and him as a person, she said.
“It’s hard to remember Southampton without your grandfather,” Anne Marie Clark told Ms. Manglaviti at Mr. Gambino’s wake, which was held at O’Connell Funeral Home on Little Plains Road in Southampton Village earlier this week.
Ms. Clark and her husband, Harold, have been regulars at the Italian restaurant for years. “We buy the olive oil religiously,” Ms. Clark said.
Her husband explained that the oil is very sweet and fresh tasting, and that they’re happy to buy it because it supports a local business and family.
Ms. Manglaviti said Mr. Gambino was one of the most selfless men she had ever met. The few times he went back to his native Sicily after immigrating to Long Island in 1972, Mr. Gambino would always return with gifts for his entire family, Ms. Manglaviti said. The gifts were nothing too extravagant—usually fine Italian belts, delicious Sicilian sweets, and other treasures from his native country, she said.
Rodolfo Gambino, one of Mr. Gambino’s two sons, who is also known as Rudy, echoed his niece’s sentiments, stating that his father’s last priority was himself. In fact, he said, the only thing his father ever wanted was tobacco for his pipe. Mr. Gambino was often seen by passersby sitting on a bench outside his restaurant, wearing a cap and smoking his pipe.
Mr. Gambino helped many East Enders, but never sought praise for his work, his son said.
“He didn’t want attention drawn to him,” said Mr. Gambino’s other son, Francesco Gambino. “It’s like in the Bible—do not let the left hand know what the right is doing.”
Rodolfo Gambino noted that his father made Sunday dinner for the priests at his parish—Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Roman Catholic Church in Southampton— for 35 years.
“He did it out of love,” Francesco Gambino said. “He did not want to be praised.”
Rodolfo Gambino shared another anecdote that he said demonstrates his father’s selflessness and humility: Following a Father’s Day sermon that touched upon Celestino Gambino’s good deeds, a parishioner approached the restaurateur and praised him. The late Mr. Gambino stated that what he did was nothing extraordinary, his son recalled. Rodolfo Gambino said he often had to explain to his father that times were different, and many people today are not as willing to help others.
“They don’t make them like that anymore,” Mr. Gambino said of his father.
The late Mr. Gambino had strong ties to the Roman Catholic Church and wanted to become a priest when he was growing up in Villa Maria, a small village near Palermo. Though he was too poor to afford the seminary, he maintained his faith by going to church every Sunday, Ms. Manglaviti said.
To better his life, he uprooted his wife and seven children and moved to Southampton, Ms. Manglaviti said. It was a risk, but it was wildly successfully at the end, she said.
La Parmigiana’s success hinged, in large part, on Mr. Gambino’s attention to detail, Ms. Manglaviti said. Two points of particular importance to him were the flowers on his restaurant’s tables—no fake ones were ever allowed—and the quality of the extra virgin olive oil he used in his dishes, she said. The oil must be first press, meaning that it is made when the fruit is pressed for the first time.
Ms. Manglaviti said that while the chair at the head of the big marble table in her late grandfather’s home will remain empty on Mondays, her Nonno’s tradition will live on.