Joseph E. Todaro, a former construction laborer who earned a legion of admirers for his generosity and his highly successful La Nova Pizzeria, but also the scrutiny of federal investigators over several decades, died Wednesday in Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Amherst, after a lengthy illness. He was 89.
He lived in the Town of Tonawanda and wintered in Florida.
A carpenter, Mr. Todaro in 1957 founded La Nova Pizzeria, which grew from one small West Side restaurant to one of the largest independent pizzerias in the nation, a multimillion-dollar business that sells frozen chicken wings, pizzas and hot sauces all over the world.
Although friends described him as a religious, hardworking man who was devoted to many charitable causes, Mr. Todaro was hounded for decades by allegations that he and his son headed Buffalo’s La Cosa Nostra family.
Those allegations, made in court statements by the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department, were never proved in any court. He was never convicted of a felony crime, despite numerous attempts by federal investigators.
Mr. Todaro and his family sent free food to soldiers in the Middle East, to rescue workers at ground zero after the 9/11 attacks and to countless charity events, according to family members.
“I’ve gone to them so many times, I’m embarrassed to ask again,” one priest said. “But they always help out and they never look for publicity.”
“I don’t know about [the allegations], but I’ve always known him as a kind and generous man … unbelievably generous,” Buffalo developer and lawyer Carl P. Paladino said of Mr. Todaro. “A very soft-spoken man, very devoted to his family and his extended family. … I knew him for more than 30 years.”
Similar comments came from Anthony M. Masiello, the former Buffalo mayor who said Mr. Todaro had been a good friend of his for more than three decades.
“Joe Todaro and his family have made tremendous contributions to our community,” Masiello said. “There are always rumors and allegations about people, but from my dealings with the man and his family, I only saw good things.
“They’ve done a lot more for the needy of this community than people with pristine reputations. They helped out a lot of people with jobs at La Nova, and they never abandoned their roots on the West Side.”
Both Paladino and Masiello spoke to The News about a year ago, when Mr. Todaro was seriously ill.
“I admired his ability to stand up for what he believed in,” Buffalo attorney Paul Cambria said on Thursday. He, too was a friend of Mr. Todaro of more than 30 years. “He was a real self-made man and an old-timer,” Cambria said. “People like him just don’t exist anymore.”
In a series of prosecutions over more than four decades, law enforcement could never make their allegations against Mr. Todaro stick.
In May 1967, Mr. Todaro and 35 other men were arrested at a stag party for his son at Panaro’s, a lounge on Hampshire Street. He was charged with “consorting with known criminals,” a charge that was later dismissed in Buffalo City Court.
Mr. Todaro later filed an unsuccessful false arrest and civil rights lawsuit against police agencies involved in the raid, accusing the cops of singling out Italian-Americans for harassment.
In 1985, he was acquitted of federal tax evasion charges after allegations were made that he underreported his income for years 1976, 1977 and 1978.
As recently as June 2004, Town of Tonawanda police were calling the elder Todaro a “person of interest” in the unsolved murder of Charles Gerass, a real estate salesman who was shot and left in a car trunk in September 1965. Police said Gerass had disappeared after leaving his home for a business meeting with Mr. Todaro.
FBI agents re-examined evidence from the Gerass homicide using modern DNA evidence-gathering techniques, but the investigation led to no charges against Mr. Todaro or anyone.
To friends of the Todaros, the episode was just another example of cops trying to falsely blame a crime on an innocent, hardworking businessman.
In 1989, Mr. Todaro and his son were identified as the leaders of a 45-member Buffalo Mafia family in a sworn statement filed in connection with a gambling investigation.
The FBI statement alleged that the family controlled “a variety of criminal activities, including labor racketeering, bookmaking, loansharking and narcotics trafficking.”
Similar allegations were made in a 1996 Justice Department report in which the two Todaros were listed among 24 alleged organized crime figures who were accused of influencing the Laborers International Union of North America since the 1960s.
But lawyers for the family always denied those claims, pointing out that the allegations of mob leadership were never proven in any court case.
“They just keep making statements without any proof,” the late Harold J. Boreanaz, an attorney for the Todaros, told The News in July 1989. “Either the government is pretty inept, or [the Todaros] just aren’t doing it.”
During a brief interview with The News in August 2004, the elder Todaro declined to comment on the FBI claims, saying he didn’t want to “dignify” the allegations by addressing them.
In an interview in March 1992, his son said, “Some of the things they put in the papers, they turn out later to be untrue.”
The elder Todaro loved cigars and going to horse tracks. In additions to his family, his pride and joy was La Nova, which began as a small pizzeria on West Ferry Street. La Nova opened a second location on Main Street in Amherst in 2001, and today, La Nova calls itself one of the largest makers of pizza and Buffalo wings in the nation.
According to the company’s website, La Nova is now a $30 million-a-year business, and the company has more than 500 distributors nationwide.
Surviving are his wife of 69 years, the former Josephine Santamauro; a son, Joseph A.; a daughter, Linda Gerace; a brother, Sam; and three sisters, Josephine Harrington, Jeannie Baker and Mary Gilbert.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10:30 a.m. Monday in St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, 200 St. Gregory Court at Maple Road, Amherst.