Dyker Heights says goodbye to a beloved local merchant.
On Saturday, May 16, Paolo Pesce, owner of La Bella Marketplace, 7907 13th Ave., died at age 75 from colon cancer complications.
He is survived by his wife Maria, his children Antonella, Janet and Nick, his three grandchildren and brothers Larry and Frank
Pesce was born Aug.12,1944 in a fisherman’s town, Mola di Bari, Italy.
He came to America 1966 and worked as a merchant marine at Texaco. When he lived in downtown Brooklyn, he held odd jobs to pay the rent. He married Maria in 1970.
In 1976, he and his two brothers opened up a little deli store at Bay 45th Street and Cropsey Avenue, Nick Pesce told this paper. “Then in 1987, they opened their second store which is still functioning today at 16th Avenue and 66th Street as C-Town Supermarkets. They opened another location in Dyker Heights called La Bella Marketplace and another market place in Staten Island.”
Nick told this paper how much La Bella Marketplace meant to his father.
“He was just passionate about what he did,” he said. “He was a very hands-on owner who would be here every day greeting the customers. Those that remained in the neighborhood since day one.”
Nick, who has worked at the store for 27 years, said, “He had a lot of pride in his work and I think people recognized that and this is a supermarket. Typically supermarkets are not like that. In Dyker Heights, we’ve been there 30 years. You have kids that have grown up and are coming in. We do a lot of importing from Italy, all in-house cooking and baking and cheese machinery. We have that niche.”
As much as Pesce cared for his store, he equally cared for locals and customers.
“I think people trusted him,” Nick said. “He had this soft spoken voice. He had an ex-employee who worked for the deli many years while he was in college. He went to Staten Island and opened a successful restaurant. My father had a party there eight months ago, recognized him, put his hand on his shoulder and just said how proud he was of him.”
Pesce loved to motivate people, whether they were family or friends.
“He said that If he could do it with a high school education from a poor family and not having anything, [you can too],” Nick said. “He got his first pair of shoes when he was 14. He would say, ‘I’m not a genius and that’s not why I’m successful. I’m an everyday man and I just made it.’ That’s what the community saw in him, especially around his home in Dyker. He was always sweeping, cleaning, saying hello. He goes to the bagel store to talk to them.”
Pesce also showed a love for his community, as Nick said he moved three times, each time within the neighborhood.
“We went from 18th Avenue to 15th Avenue to 11th Avenue,” he said. “He loved Brooklyn and had no problem walking the streets greeting people. People loved him because he always had a big smile. The thing he instilled in me and the next generation is to have passion in what you do. If you wouldn’t do it for yourself, how would you do it for someone else?
He also stressed the importance of giving back.
“My father was a part of so many social clubs,” Nick said. “He did foundations, helped give scholarships, rallied for donations at galas. The last couple of years, he would always contribute and show up to all the churches in Brooklyn and did something for them. He was a sensitive gentleman. It wasn’t about the money or success. It was about the everyday people and still being able to go to these social clubs and parties.”
He also visited Italy for two months every summer.
After Pesce passed away, his family was touched by the outpouring of support from customers and neighbors.
“When he died and I read the comments, I was amazed that people put him on a pedestal,” Nick said. “I’m 39 years old and I thought I knew everything about him but I didn’t. I didn’t know all the favors and the conversations he had with people. I’m getting all this feedback on social media and it is very touching.”
He also added, “Someone reached out to us who was taking a voyage with him on the ship in 1966 when they came from Italy and he was throwing up but my dad was comforting him. He told me the story.”
Carlo Scissura, a family friend and president and CEO of New York Building Congress, said, “Paolo is what you would consider the quintessential American immigrant success story. He was a generous philanthropist. He supported a lot of the local organizations, supported schools with donations, a lot of Italian groups. He was really there for anybody in need and I think his loss will be hard to deal with for the community and his staff. Just a wonderful man all around. He was always there for the community.
“He never forgot where he came from. He owned the business in a community. He lived a couple of blocks from the store so he always walked right to work. He went to church in the community. You could find him walking up and down the aisles making sure everything was going well. He was a real family man. He loved his kids. His grandkids. His wife.”
Scissura has many great memories of Pesce, but tradition and heritage stand out.
“For me, it was always the Italian connection,” he said. “Knowing that, as myself being the son of immigrants, that there was an individual who continued the traditions of the foods we eat, the beverages we use, Christmas traditions. Everything continued as if we were where our ancestors came from. To me that was always something wonderful.”
He also has immense respect for the store.
“I go there because they have all the products from Italy,” he said. “The juices, the cleaning supplies, the cold cuts, salami, cheeses, the mozzarella, they have become an incredible part of the Italian community in terms of selling the products that we like, then a part of the entire community because they’re a supermarket. He made it into a one-stop shop so you could get your fruit and vegetables. You can buy your fish and meats and of course you can get all the fresh Italian staples that you want. Pastas, things like that.”
They even operated at a high level during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even during this pandemic, they figured out how to support people and do deliveries and everything they could to keep the neighborhoods fed and they never missed a beat,” said Scissura. “I would tell people who don’t live in this part of Brooklyn who complain about empty store shelves. I said come to La Bella. They are full stock with fresh meats and produce.”
Customers also shared their love for Pesce.
“Mr. Pesce was the absolute best father, husband, family, friend, and businessman,” said Kim Shamoun Tzivas. “His sole reason for living and greatest accomplishment, will always be his family.”
“Sorry for your loss,” wrote Gregory Tartamella. “He was a good man. I met him plenty of times when i was a baker in labella on Staten Island REST IN LOVE ..DEEPEST CONDOLENCES TO LENNY AND NICK. FROM THE TARTAMELLA FAMILY”
“He was a man of community and wanted the best for it here and abroad for his hometown,” Nick said. “He really loved everybody.”