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Thomas Verdillo, 77, Dies; Restaurateur Went from Red Sauce to Blue Ribbon

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Tommaso at first seemed like a classic red-sauce restaurant when it opened in 1971 in South Brooklyn. But it quickly became a critically admired dining spot frequented by foodies, neighborhood people, Manhattanites and mobsters alike.

Almost as much of a draw was the warmth of its owner, Thomas Verdillo, who over the decades liked to serenade his customers with arias. He died on Dec. 27 at Lutheran Hospital in Brooklyn at 77. The cause was complications of Covid-19, his nephew George Guida said.

Mr. Verdillo was ahead of the renaissance of Italian-American restaurants in New York City, adding more sophisticated fare and regional dishes to his standard menu in the 1970s and building a resplendent wine cellar.

Food critics recognized his ambition. Michael Steinberger wrote in The Financial Times in 2010: “It is the staples on the menu that keep drawing us back to Tommaso: the simple but fetching spaghetti with a light tomato sauce, basil and fresh mozzarella, the sauce made of tomatoes harvested from Verdillo’s sister’s New Jersey garden; the sublime spaghetti carbonara; the rich, soulful pasta e fagioli; the gargantuan grilled veal chop with sautéed mushrooms and the most ethereal roasted potatoes I know.”

Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times in 2006 that Tommaso was the kind of place that elicits “a pang of nostalgia for the kind of restaurant that once defined many Americans’ sense of what was Italian.”

When Mr. Verdillo opened Tommaso, where the Bath Beach and Bensonhurst neighborhoods meet, he had one important customer lined up, Paul Castellano, the future boss of the Gambino organized crime family, who was already a frequent patron of a small catering business that Mr. Verdillo was running.

Mr. Castellano soon opened a “social club” next door to Tommaso, and his associates became regular customers, according to Mr. Verdillo in an unpublished memoir, written in 2010 with Mr. Guida, a writer and professor at the New York City College of Technology, part of the City University of New York.

Mr. Castellano urged him to elevate the menu and improve the wine list, Mr. Verdillo wrote. But the relationship, while profitable for the restaurant, would come to haunt him.

“As much as I loved Paul,” he recalled, “having some of his associates around has always scared me, all my working life.”

The first decades of Tommaso “should have been a time of pure joy for me, but it wasn’t,” he wrote.

“While I was living a dream, I was also living in fear that someone might get assassinated in the restaurant,” he explained, “and I myself or one of my customers would be hurt in some way.”

He recounted one evening when a group of gastronomes from the vaunted James Beard Society were eating at Tommaso. Mr. Castellano and a contingent of arrived with wives and girlfriends.

One underling in Mr. Castellano’s party became convinced that a member of the Beard group was staring at his girlfriend. “Right in the middle of the meal, the soldier got up, walked to the James Beard table and threatened the poor guy, who was scared stiff and dumb,” Mr. Verdillo wrote.

“Sure, it’s a scene that could have been in ‘Goodfellas,’ but there were real consequences,” he added. “The James Beard Society never came again.”

Mr. Castellano was gunned down at 70 outside a Manhattan steak house in 1985. Mr. Verdillo said business declined after that.

Thomas Verdillo was born in Brooklyn on April 13, 1943, one of six children of Matteo and Ida Verdillo. His mother was a nurse at Maimonides Hospital; his father, an Italian immigrant, was an unsuccessful businessman. When Thomas was a toddler, his mother had a nervous breakdown, and he and a sister were sent to live in an orphanage for more than a year.

The separation so traumatized Thomas that when he returned home to his mother, he wouldn’t let her out of his sight. Since she loved to cook, he began spending time with her in the kitchen.

He got his first job at 13 working for Jacques Caterers, where he first encountered mobsters like Carlo Gambino and Joe Colombo. He studied classical French cooking at the Food Trades Vocational High School in Lower Manhattan. He took over the catering company at 20 and renamed it Tom’s Catering.

When Mr. Verdillo was 25, his father died in a car accident, and with help from the insurance money that was paid out, he bought a building on 86th Street in Brooklyn — the future home of Tommaso. He lived in an apartment upstairs for decades before moving to Staten Island. Mr. Guida is one of many nephews and nieces who survive him.

“All food manifests affection,” Mr. Verdillo wrote in his memoir. “It’s a way to nourish and in that way, express love and caring. I learned that first from my mother and just continued the thread.”

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