Warm heart, hot food fill memories of La Foresta’s Tarangelo

CorrespondentSeptember 29, 2013 

Steve Tarangelo sits on the counter of his original restaurant during construction phase, prior to opening in the Fall of 1992.

COURTESY OF THE TARANGELO FAMILY — Courtesy of the Tarangelo family

  • Stephen Tarangelo

    Born: May 20, 1954, New York City

    Family : One of four children; marries wife Pamela in 1984; son David is born in 1991. They move to Raleigh in 1989, and relocate to Wake Forest in 1993.

    Education: Graduates from Clarkstown High School in New York in 1972; earns aircraft and power plant certification from Reedley College in California in 1977; earns a B.S. in microbiology and environmental health from San Jose College in California in 1981.

    Career: Before opening La Foresta in 1992, he worked for his family’s oil company in New York, as an aircraft mechanic, an environmental impact researcher and a real estate agent.

    Dies: Sept. 8

— When a 2002 ice storm rendered Wake Forest powerless for three days, Steve Tarangelo decided that La Foresta, the Italian restaurant he had opened a decade earlier, would find a way to serve warm food to his frozen community.

Tarangelo picked up some staff in his truck and headed to the restaurant. With his wife, Pam, and their then 10-year-old son David in tow, they shoveled the walks, fired up the gas ovens, and started making and serving pizza. When the sun set, Tarangelo donned a miner’s head lamp, and when things were slow, his staff and family (they were one and the same, in many ways) repurposed the pizza pans for sledding breaks.

As when La Foresta Italian Café & Pizzeria first opened, the place’s “If you cook it, they will come” sentiment was proven again. Families who otherwise would have not left their houses, let alone have eaten a hot meal, were welcomed to the candle-lit space that was a frequent site for anniversaries, birthdays and baseball victory parties.

This was Tarangelo’s vision from the beginning, his family said. When he died this month at 59, the community of Wake Forest mourned. Tarangelo not only brought New York-style pizza to their palates but was quick to give food away when folks came in with their newborn babies.

Highly skilled, a way with people

As a New York City native, Tarangelo wondered if his mother’s Italian recipes would be appreciated in these parts. But he yearned to open a restaurant that would be like the neighborhood pizza joints of his youth. He was especially inspired by a place called Frankie’s, the pizzeria in the Bronx that made his favorite – a spinach roll, which he frequently brought home to his wife for dinner.

He and his wife moved to Raleigh in 1989 when Pam, an IBM employee, was offered the chance to relocate from the North. Tarangelo initially dabbled in real estate, which is how he found the original site of La Foresta. Located on Highway 98, it was only 1,300 square feet.

With no formal culinary training, he worked in restaurants in his youth. But it was his myriad other areas of expertise – and way with people – that led to his being a successful restaurateur. For years he helped his parents operate a business in New York. He was also a pilot, a mechanic, and had degrees in microbiology and environmental health. He personally oversaw the original site’s renovation.

Years later, it became clear the community had outgrown the modest space – when David’s baseball team could not fit inside for a celebratory pizza. Tarangelo was general contractor for the construction of a new 3,800-square-foot building on Brooks Street.

A top priority was to include a space for large gatherings, where Frank Sinatra often crooned from the speakers, and lasagna and cannoli once again sparked the menu.

Relying on faith

David Tarangelo cannot remember his father’s being sick a day in his life before he was diagnosed with brain cancer. The first sign of problems came in October 2012, when Tarangelo passed out behind the wheel in a Walmart parking lot. He’d begun having headaches. It wasn’t long before a brain scan showed a significant tumor behind his right ear.

Glioblastoma offered a best-case scenario that gave him a one-in-five chance of living another three to five years if he responded well to radiation treatment and surgeries.

Tarangelo did what was advised by doctors and became even more deeply connected to his faith, turning to his community at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Wake Forest – an essential part of his life both before and after his diagnosis, his wife said.

But once he became ill, it pained him to come to La Foresta. His cook (and best friend, his wife said) Barbara Mazelan, took over daily operations. As someone who ran a tight ship, and was a perfectionist to the core, it was difficult to be so comprised around his life’s work.

The community held a fundraiser last spring in hopes of defraying medical bills and perhaps enabling Tarangelo’s lifelong dream of going to Italy. His health would not allow it, though he did attend a game at the new Yankee Stadium with his son.

Wake Forest resident Katie Mosher Patterson has used La Foresta to celebrate everything from closing on a home to her wedding rehearsal dinner.

“We have seen many restaurants come and go in Wake Forest and the vicinity in the past 20 years. But La Foresta has had a strength in building a staff that cares about the customers and the food being served,” she said.

For David Tarangelo, the shoes that have been left to fill are at least “two sizes too big,” but for now he is helping his mother and the staff at La Foresta maintain its day-to-day operations just as Tarangelo would want it.

“Steve’s motto was, ‘Food is love,’” Pam Tarangelo said.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service