Michael Valerio, who immigrated from Italy to East Boston in the 1930s and expanded a small pizza-by-the-slice operation into the iconic Papa Gino’s franchise, died Wednesday, Sept. 2. He was 89 years old.
Valerio was born in Villa Latina, Italy and immigrated to East Boston with his family in 1936.
In 1954, after serving in the Korean War, he opened his first restaurant serving pizza and ice cream in Eastie on Bennington Street with help from his brother Gino using his service earnings that his mother had saved for him while overseas.
What would eventually become the Papa Gino’s dynasty started as a humble take out pizza window on Bennington Street near Marion Street called Paradise Restaurant.
In 1957 Valerio married Helen (Kazukonis) who grew up in the Maverick Projects at 66 Grady Court
By 1961, Valerio and Helen changed the name of the small take out pizza operation to Piece O’ Pizza and later to Papa Gino’s in 1967 in honor of his brother.
Shortly afterwards, Valerio opened restaurants in Revere Beach, Roxbury, Dorchester, East Cambridge, Canton, and Brockton.
Having come from humble backgrounds, Valerio and Helen truly lived the American Dream building over 300 privately held restaurants and employing more than 7000 employees in New England, upper-state New York and Florida.
“I remember the first Papa Ginos was next to John’s Tavern (later Morelli’s Pizza and then Kelly’s) on Bennington Street,” said Eastie’s Betty Falzarano Marotta. “Michael was the owner and his brother was Gino. His brother Gino opened a Pizza place on Revere Beach and Michael later opened Papa Ginos on Squire Road and I made the cafe curtains for the windows when I was younger. I remember all this because it was prom time and I wanted to ask Michael, but he was already taken by Helen.”
Papa Gino’s Pizza became an iconic restaurant chain where many New Englanders have strong embedded memories of the savory pizza, pasta, sandwich and grilled food recipes.
When Valerio and Helen sold the chain in 1991, they had 220 company-owned Papa Gino’s restaurants across New England.
Valerio, a devout member of the Catholic church raised money for inner-city kids’ camps run by the Catholic Charities and various religious causes throughout his life. He also spearheaded programs to promote Christianity and Family Values.
In tandem with promoting Christianity and Family Values, Valerio became an active member of the Republican Party, served as the chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party during part of The 1980s, and purchased and ran WEEI radio station, an all-news format radio station from 1983 until 1990. From there, he tirelessly continued his support of conservative values and causes throughout his life.
Michael is survived by his wife of 62 years, Helen, son Michael and his two son’s Michael and Luke, daughter Laura Valerio MacKinnon and her husband Bob, daughter Linda Stenzel and her husband Tom and sister Mary (Clarke).