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   Vol. 16 No. 59
Tuesday July 25, 2017

Rocky Was An Original
Rocco Manniello

      I have been privileged to meet several great people in my years at the airport, especially in New York.
      A favorite was Rocco Manniello. At 5 feet, 5 inches tall, Rocco lorded over airport employee food service at LaGuardia, JFK, and even at some leading universities in the area. He even hocked his house in Whitestone in 1988to open “The Yankee Clipper,” a neighborhood Italian home-style eatery inside the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport.


Stroke Takes A Life

      Now just shy of 30 years later, Rocco has passed away at age 63.  He died on July 17, 2017  in New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital after a paralyzing stroke this past Memorial Day that left him in a coma for the remainder of his life.
      “Rocky,” as we called him, was one of those absolute originals that you meet more often than not in the airline business.
      A native of Avellino, Italy, Rocky emigrated to New York with his family and promptly went into the pizza business at Pizza Sam’s, a local favorite located near LaGuardia Airport on Northern Blvd. in Queens, New York.
      “I did all kinds of jobs—from delivery to cleaning toilets to making the pizza—but not necessarily all at the same time,” Rocky recalled, smiling.
      After he had saved up enough money to depart Pizza Sam, Rocky said:
      “The boss was not too happy about me leaving but I knew I had to do it my way!”
      And that is just what Rocky did, becoming a neighborhood restaurant on 21st Ave., a stone’s throw from LaGuardia Airport.

Rocky Comes To The Airport

      At the time we were working to save the Marine Air Terminal, and the airport operator decided to utilize the building with The Pan Am Shuttle in 1986. The search for someone to operate a small lobby restaurant issued from Manager Tim Peirce’s edict “to find someone local” to Rocco’s well-frequented eatery just off LaGuardia’s main runways.
      The idea to bring in local brands to operate a restaurant was completely novel 30 years ago.
      But it must be remembered that Tim Peirce was way ahead of his time in generating the airport/neighborhood cooperation that is common practice all over the world today.

Toni's Tale

      “Rocky was always bigger than life to me,” his cousin Antonietta Mileo recalled.
      “He came home (Avellino) to marry his wife, Anna, and my mom asked him to watch over me when I moved to the U.S. at age 11.
      “So I travelled with Rocky and Anna aboard Alitalia and they brought me to the new world.”
      Toni, who owns and operates Rudy’s Bakery & Café on Seneca Ave. in Ridgewood, Queens, recalls that Rocco was always generous with everyone, even strangers, and the life of any party.
      “We had a family reunion last year in Avellino and Rocky, who had help set everything up, was hospitalized.
      “We had gotten used to his bouts with the hospital, but he always seemed able to summon the strength to recover as he did last summer. Alas, this time it was not to be,” Toni said sadly.

Final Goodbyes

      “Our final goodbyes in the funeral home included an over-flow of people he had known and helped during his all-too brief time with us,” Toni said.
      “We all took some comfort, and had to smile that so many people came to say goodbye. His life was recalled in flowers that included a giant pepperoni pizza, “The Yankee Clipper” B314 flying boat that once dominated The Marine Air terminal where Cousin Rocco landed to build his fortune, and also a giant flower arrangement that looked just like the many racehorses Rocco loved to spend afternoons with at the track,” Toni smiled.

Other Memories

      The images of Rocco Manniello that endure include those early days inside the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia.
      Back at the beginning, Rocco built his small restaurant with his mother, Geraldine (who is still alive and living with full time medical help in her original Astoria home, thanks to Rocco), and wife, Anna, hard at work inside the kitchen making Italian specialties and sauces. The children Jerry, Michael, and Roxanne were regular staples around the restaurant.
      It very soon became apparent that Rocco could not only play the airport restaurant game, but could also handle operating food services everywhere. He quickly expanded operations to JFK and elsewhere.
      Fortunately, Rocco never lost the kid inside him and the wonderment of working at an airport.
      While growing up, a regular school trip regular for every one of our four children was a journey to the airport. It included a tour of Bill Marx’s Air Traffic Control Tower (the old white structure rampside that locals called “The Wastebasket”) and then a stop at Port Authority Police, where the ever-lovely crew over there would roll the big water pumping truck so the kids could thrill in watching a giant plume of spray arc across the hardstand.
      Then Rocco would set the table for the kids in the lobby, where they would have lunch and a big cake from Toni’s wonderful bakery.
      Once, on a cold February day, the Pan Am Shuttle Manager Frank Signor allowed the kids to board a B727 hooked up to a GPU to warm the cabin. Rocco suggested that he could serve the kids lunch aboard the airplane.
      So outside Rocco went with a huge tray of his wife Anna’s baked ziti, which tipped precariously as he climbed the ladder onto the aircraft.
      Noting that kids were sitting on the flight deck, Rocco donned a Pan Am cap, replaced a youngster in the left seat, and conducted the rest of the luncheon from the aircraft’s bridge.
      “Rocky for all the years I knew him was always a great supporter of the local airport community,” recalled Joe Pappalardo, Chief Maintenance Supervisor, LaGuardia Airport (retired).
      “Rocky was always there for all the dates that were important and drew the airport community together throughout the year.
      “He was truly one of a kind and will be missed,” Joe said.

Lust For Life

      Somehow, Rocco never lost his lust for life.
      We honor and cherish his memory and although we had moved in separate circles for many years, we always thought Rocco would bounce back as he always had with previous health issues.
      It hurts like hell to lose him at any age, and at 63 it feels like we were robbed.
      Plaques and small endearments have been placed all over The Marine Air Terminal for beloved people at LaGuardia.
      There are gardens that bound the entrance of the MAT in honor of the great visionary airport manager, the late George L. “Tim” Peirce, and the pioneering airport services lady, Elaine Jones.
      Rocco Maniello has earned and deserves his own place somewhere at the MAT.
      Rocky, who we deeply and will always love, was an absolute original.

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