Story by Jay Levin
As printed in the Record
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Think back to your youth. Wasn't there a neighborhood legend you revered? Maybe the world-wise, big-hearted guy who ran the soda fountain, his apron spattered by all those burgers and egg-and-bacon sandwiches?
To thousands reared in Bergenfield, that guy was Vito Florio.
For 40 years, Mr. Florio owned Dan's Delicatessen and Luncheonette on South Prospect Avenue, down the street from Bergenfield High. With its faded Breyer's Ice Cream sign on a pole out front and 20 vinyl-topped stools flattened by countless posteriors, Dan's is the quintessential anti-Starbucks.
Happily for Bergenfield, the grill is still sizzling, usually with a pile of home fries in one corner. But the town is mourning Dan's heart and soul. Mr. Florio, 77, who lived just over the line in New Milford and stuck around after selling the luncheonette to a pair of longtime employees in 2003, died of brain cancer Nov. 1.
"He was everyone's father," said Taryn Villone, a bookkeeper from Dumont who has been going to Dan's since her Bergenfield High days in the '70s.
And like every good father, Mr. Florio -- who began his workday well before sunup -- set an example.
"Sometimes, it's not the things you say, but how you live your life," Villone said. "Vito was here early every morning, and he didn't piss and moan."
"A good listener" is how Mike Monaghan, who grew up to become a Bergenfield police lieutenant, remembered Mr. Florio.
"Vito was your doctor, your politician, your father -- everything in one," Mario Uribe said. He was a freshman when he started sweeping floors at Dan's in 1987 and now owns the place, along with Betty Sieglen, who had worked for Mr. Florio since 1973.
Uribe said he learned responsibility and communication skills from Mr. Florio, a man who could talk to anybody about anything. Sieglen said she considered Mr. Florio her friend, not her boss.
"He loved me, but this was his woman," she said from behind the counter. "This store was the love of his life."
After word got out that Mr. Florio had died, the message board at bergenfieldalumni.com filled with tributes. Dan's proprietor served up countless lunches to Bergenfield High students who couldn't stand cafeteria food and was famous for hiring kids, usually those needing a steady hand. Mr. Florio had a system: You started by cleaning up or stocking shelves and worked your way up to the grill or the deli case.
"He tried to be a mentor, and a lot of the kids who came to work for him were from broken homes and needed someone to guide them," said daughter Connie Pedrani of Franklin Lakes.
Vito Florio's road to Bergenfield icon started on Manhattan's West Side. After Power Memorial High School, where he played the sax in the marching band, Mr. Florio worked as a stevedore and as a courier. For a while, he and a pal named Bobby were the Bobby Vito Orchestra, playing gigs at Manhattan hotels.
The Korean War found Mr. Florio, an Army technical sergeant, in Germany. Returning stateside, he married a girl from Indiana, got a job with the post office and set up housekeeping in Queens.
The first of four daughters arrived in 1955, and a year later the family moved out to Bergenfield, where Mr. Florio -- who had transferred to the Englewood Post Office -- bought a two-family house with his brother Frank. The brothers and their father, Dan, went into the sanitation business, buying a garbage route in Woodcliff Lake.
The deal of a lifetime came in 1963: Sebby's, a South Prospect Avenue luncheonette, was for sale.
Vito and Frank pounced.
"They bought Sebby's and the whole building, which had several apartments," said Mr. Florio's eldest daughter, Cathy Viagrande of Southington, Conn. "They saw it as an opportunity to get their parents out of the city."
The brothers renamed the luncheonette for their father, and Dan and Caterina Florio moved into the apartment behind the store. Mr. Florio took his growing family one town over. And before long, he bought out his brother.
"You'd never know my father was having a bad day," said Viagrande, who, like her sisters, grew up in the store. "Anyone walking through that door got the biggest smile. He connected with people, and he stayed young at heart because he was dealing with high school kids all the time."
As time passed, Mr. Florio cut back from seven days a week to six. He was still working long days into his 70s, still schmoozing with customers young and old.
"I think my dad had a hard time selling it at all," Viagrande said. "He'd say, 'I don't know what I'll do with myself,' and, 'I love doing what I do.' "
But entrusting Dan's to Betty Sieglen and Mario Uribe, two people who loved the luncheonette as much as he did, made retirement possible for Mr. Florio.
Bergenfield won't soon forget him.
"If you didn't know Vito," Uribe said, "you weren't from around here."
Copyright © North Jersey Media Group, 2006
Reprinted with permission
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