Joseph Cecere sailed to America from Italy in 1952 with little more than a lemon in his coat pocket as a home remedy for seasickness.
He learned the baking trade in his new country and would go on to own three restaurants in the Twin Cities, all known for his Italian cooking, particularly his bread.
Cecere, of Mounds View, died Feb. 19 from lung disease at age 78.
He grew up in a small town near Naples, but left Italy alone at age 15 for better economic opportunities. “There was no work to be had at the time,” said Dominic Cecere, one of Cecere’s three sons.
The immigrant landed in Chicago, where his older brother had settled a few years earlier. Instead of going to high school, Cecere went immediately to work, landing a job in a bakery called Claudio’s. “That’s where he learned how to make bread, cannoli and doughnuts,” Dominic said.
It’s also where he met Maria, the woman who would become his wife. She was a regular customer, and Joe would often spot her at the counter. “I’m going to marry that girl someday,” he once told a co-worker, Dominic said. That someday came in 1959.
Cecere then opened his own bakery in Chicago, which he ran for several years before moving to the Twin Cities in 1976 because of family connections, Dominic said.
Cecere and his brother-in-law, Vincenzo Cotroneo, then opened a restaurant in St. Anthony called Vincenzo’s. Joe and Vincenzo did the cooking and baking, while Maria and Vincenzo’s wife, Mary, did the serving.
After the strip mall housing Vincenzo’s was razed in the 1980s, Cecere tried his hand at an Italian restaurant called Cecere’s in Anoka for a few years before opening Giuseppe’s Italian Ristorante in New Brighton in the early 1990s. The traditional Italian restaurant would feature dishes named after his grandchildren.
When Cecere retired in his early 70s, he sold Giuseppe’s to Stacy Traviss, who had started there as a waitress soon after it was opened. Cecere taught her how to cook, from lasagna and gnocchi to big doughnuts made from fried Italian bread.
“I was kind of his apprentice for many years,” she said. “He taught me everything I know.” Cecere’s recipes were handed down as they worked together in the kitchen. “He didn’t have anything written down.”
After selling his restaurant, Cecere worked part-time for a few years as a school bus monitor for special-needs students. He also was an avid gardener and a crackerjack bocce ball player. Cecere and his wife played in bocce ball leagues for 18 years at Beltrami Park in northeast Minneapolis, and he had trophies lining his basement to show for it.
Above all, Cecere was a family man, his son said. He is survived by his wife, Maria; sons Andrew, Dominic, Joe and their wives; and five grandchildren. Services have been held.