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Tuesday, April 11, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurateur Vito Santoro served lots more than food

Seattle Times staff reporter

The big round table back by the kitchen door at Vito's Restaurant was unoccupied at lunch yesterday, a silent memorial to the man who made that place a Seattle institution.

For nearly half a century, Vito Santoro presided over that table - first as proprietor, then as a customer. Here he dispensed roughly equal portions of cannelloni and goodwill to anybody who passed through the doors.

Mr. Santoro, who died Sunday (April 9) at age 79, turned his corner restaurant into a Seattle crossroads, a meeting place for politicians and judges, surgeons and Jesuit priests, senior citizens and Husky-football fans.

"Vito's was the only place in Seattle that had that New York neighborhood feel," recalls Dave LaRose, a longtime customer and family friend.

Born and raised in a working-class neighborhood in Torrington, Conn., Mr. Santoro set out with little schooling but plenty of street smarts. He served in the Marines in the Pacific during World War II and came home after being wounded on Okinawa.

He and his brother Jimmy moved to Seattle in the late 1940s, tending bar at local restaurants and bottle clubs. In 1953 the brothers took over a seedy hole-in-the-wall at Ninth Avenue and Madison Street, and called it Vito's.

"There was no parking, no walk-in trade, and Vito was no cook," says LaRose. "But he was a natural restaurateur. He made it a success."

Vito's soon earned a reputation for its dim lighting, fine red sauce and cocktails "that would make a mule walk backwards." The decor was plush red and black with a perpetual tobacco haze.

But the main draw was Vito and his extraordinary, ever-expanding circle of friends.

The big round table in back was known as the family table. But "family" eventually encompassed downtown lawyers, City Council members, doctors, priests and faculty members from nearby Seattle University, and aging pensioners lured by the spaghetti specials. The cannelloni was never on the menu, but regulars knew it was always available - "on special."

Here deals were struck, city issues negotiated, bets placed and settled.

"If a fly landed on the wall, somebody would bet five bucks it would take off to the right," recalls Al Bianchi, another old friend.

Vito's was also a gathering place for Seattle's Italian Americans, a once tightly knit community based in the area of Rainier Valley formerly known as "Garlic Gulch."

But Mr. Santoro's community extended far beyond ethnicity. He became a devout University of Washington football fan, organizing busloads to home games, even during the 1950s and '60s when Husky wins were scarce.

Meanwhile, he organized an annual Columbus Day banquet at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church, with all proceeds going to scholarships to local high schools.

"Vito always wanted to see people get a chance for the education he didn't get," Bianchi says. "He was the kindest man I ever met."

Mr. Santoro sold the restaurant in 1993. It continues to operate with the same name and decor. But today the cannelloni is listed on the menu.

Long after he gave it up, Mr. Santoro kept coming home to his restaurant and his table - even after he lost his legs to diabetes. He visited for lunch as recently as January.

Mr. Santoro is survived by his wife, Mollie; a sister, Nellie Rinaldi of Seattle; and five nephews. His brother Danny Santoro died yesterday morning in Arizona.

The family suggests memorial donations to Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church, 1531 Bradner Place S., Seattle, WA 98144, or to the Forgotten Children's Fund, P.O. Box 9936, Seattle, WA 98109.

A memorial Mass will be at 11 a.m. Friday at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church. Friends expect an overflow crowd, followed by a spread of great Italian food.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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