Hail Caesar! Unique area chef/restaurateur dies at 85

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Alfio Gaglianese, who died Sept. 25 after a brief illness at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery in East Norriton at the age of 85, was definitely one of a kind. There are countless talented Italian chefs in the Philadelphia area, of which Alfio was certainly one, but when you went to one of Alfio's restaurants (he had a 60-year career but was best known for Alfio's at 15 Limekiln Pike in Glenside from 1987 to 2002), you did not go just for the food but also for the show. And the show was put on by Alfio.

Alfio reminded me somewhat of Gene Gosfield, co-owner (with wife, Phyllis) of Under the Blue Moon fame in Chestnut Hill until 1997. Gene would approach each table, exchange light banter and maybe tell a joke or two. Alfio, however, was Gene Gosfield to the third power. Alfio would haul his massive 32-pound wooden salad bowl to the table and proceed to make a Caesar salad that truly was fit for a Caesar. It won the Philadelphia Magazine's Best of Philly award for several years, and in 2002, the last time we had it, it cost a mere $6 per person.

But Alfio loved entertaining customers even more than feeding them. His shtick always included lots of playful banter, a bit of pepper mill juggling, sleight-of-hand napkin tricks and corny jokes, such as “The dinner I was cooking for my family was going to be a surprise, but the fire trucks ruined the surprise.” And “Why do the French eat snails? Because they don't like fast food.” OK, that will not get you on America's Got Talent, but when Alfio told them, you could not help but laugh (or at least smile).

Alfio left his hometown of San Pietro Apostolo, a village in Calabria, Italy, in 1953 at age 18 and went with his father and two brothers to Argentina, where he worked first in a factory and then as a waiter in Italian restaurants and met his wife-to-be, Elsa. He always whimsically referred to her as “my first wife,” even though there was never a second one.

After 10 years in Argentina, Alfio emigrated to Philadelphia, although he spoke almost no English, where he became a waiter and then maitre d' at Da Vinci, an upscale Italian restaurant at 2007 Walnut St., until it closed its doors in 1983. He and Elsa then opened a restaurant in the old Benson East complex in Jenkintown, which he closed four years later when Alfio opened his eponymous landmark restaurant in a converted house in Glenside, one mile from Beaver College (now Arcadia University).

Alfio, with his shock of white hair, dark eyebrows, sly grin and ubiquitous tuxedo and bowtie, was definitely old school. His background music, for example — opera, classical and traditional Italian songs — was never intrusive, unlike many contemporary restaurants.

Alfio said that he got his Caesar salad recipe from a Peruvian maitre d' when they worked at Da Vinci. He insisted that he had never changed it since the 1970s. He said in 2000 that he would wear out a salad bowl in five years and that he had made at least 250,000 of them over the years. He also appeared several times on the Food Network and had his own cooking show on WKDS-TV (Channel 48).

“There are many things that might not seem important, but they work to make the perfect salad,” Alfio told me. “You never use a steel blade to cut the Romaine leaves, for example. You never put anchovies on top of the salad. I always use a raw egg because it holds the ingredients together and gives the dressing a great texture.”

Interestingly, Alfio once told me that his own diet was not something he would recommend to his customers. “I eat a couple gallons of ice cream a week,” he said, “often with whipped cream and lots of chocolate syrup and lots of cake, but I have only gained six pounds in 30 years, Of course, I also eat lots of salad.”

After retiring from the Glenside restaurant, which saddened many regulars (including us), Alfio would often help out at Ana’s Corner Store in East Norriton, owned by his children, Ana Ferry and Richard Gaglianese. It is a deli that sells lots of party platters and has a devoted following for its catering. In addition to Ana and Richard, survivors include Elsa, sons Alberto and Fernando, daughters Beatriz and Liliana, 14 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A viewing was held Oct. 2 at Epiphany of Our Lord Church in Plymouth Meeting. A Mass afterwards was live-streamed.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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