Beloved restauranteur Sammy Catania remembered by local chefs

News spread quickly of the passing of iconic restaurateur and Tremont West Development Corporation director Sammy Catania, who passed away on Tuesday, Dec. 1st and made many contributions to the city, including the 1980 introduction of Sammy’s in the Flats, the first fine-dining destination in the district.

"Sammy was one of the biggest believers of the Importance of food in downtown Cleveland," says Loretta Paganini, founder of the Loretta Paganini School of Cooking in Chesterland. "He was not only a pioneer but stuck around when others fled the urban landscape. His parties were top notch and set the standard back in the day."
Eric Williams, owner of four popular Cleveland restaurants including Momocho and Happy Dog, recognizes Catania as a Cleveland legacy among restauranteurs. “Cleveland’s food scene began in the Flats and Sam was a pioneer in the industry,” he says. “We shouldn’t forget where we started.”

Fresh Water reached out to other members of the local food industry for their reactions on a highly respected and beloved colleague.
Tremont residents were proud to claim Catania as their own. “Sammy was a huge part of the party scene in Tremont back in the day when Tremont was starting to turn into a dining destination,” recalls Ricardo Sandoval owner of Fat Cats and Lava Lounge. “He went from story-telling giant to concerned citizen and community activist. He was a big part of Tremont. He always made time to stop and talk to everyone. I’m going to miss seeing and talking to him about the business and Tremont.”

“Sammy Catania was the man behind the scenes that made Tremont what it really is,” says Dante Boccuzzi, chef/owner of four Tremont eateries.
Paulius Nasvytis, owner of the Velvet Tango Room and Citizen Pie, saw Catania as an innovator. Catania was one of Nasvytis’ first customers at the Velvet Tango Room 19 years ago. “His restaurant, Sammy’s, was the first place in our city that broke the mold – that’s what he always did,” he says. “He offered me sound advice and I always had his support. He also gave me his solid friendship. Sammy was a straight shooter. He made Cleveland a better place.”
Flour restaurant owner Paul Minnillo saw Catania as a role model. “Sammy Catania was one of the pioneers of changing the dining scene in Cleveland,” he says. “He brought many talented chefs into the field. I thank him for helping to put Cleveland’s food scene on the map.”
Brad Friedlander, owner of Moxie and Red The Steakhouse, agrees that Catania set the stage for future restauranteurs. “Sammy will be missed; I have such memories of him opening in the Flats,” he says.
Catania made an impact on Doug Katz early in his restaurant career. “I worked with Sammy and Roberta when I was at Oakwood Country Club as a teen,” recalls Katz, who owns Fire Food and Drink, the Katz Club Diner and Provenance. “He was always a class act and sweet man. I will miss him and am so sad for [wife] Roberta and her family.”

Even those who didn’t personally know Catania felt a connection with the man. SOHO Kitchen & Bar owner Nolan Konkoski never met Catania, but recognized his influence.   “He was obviously a long-time pillar of the restaurant community in this town,” he says. “I always heard wonderful things about him; he was respected by the people I respect most.”  Tim Bando, owner of Grove Hill, didn’t know Catania well but remembers him as supportive and highly respected.

Catania is survived by his wife, Roberta Rocco. She is asking for cards with your “Sammy stories,” which may be dropped off at Tremont West Development Corporation, 2406 Professor Avenue.
The cause of death has not been released. A memorial service is scheduled at Trinity Cathedral, 2230 Euclid Ave. on Saturday, December 12th at 9:30 a.m.

Read more articles by mary manno sweeney.

Mary Manno Sweeney is a writer, music enthusiast and social media strategist. Her work has appeared in Cleveland Scene,,Cleveland MagazineThe Journal of Communication and in her restaurant/food culture blog, Amalgamato. She is a graduate of Cleveland State University, where she studied mass communication. In addition to writing, Mary‘s professional experience includes media planning (KCH Design, Limited), television market research (WJW- TV8) and publicity (Cleveland Ballet). A native of Agrigento, Sicily, Mary is bi-lingual, cross-cultural and multinational. Mary and her family reside in West Park and dream of Italy.