I have been privileged
to meet several great people in my years at the airport, especially in
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.
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
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.
“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.
“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.
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
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
“He was truly one of a kind and will
be missed,” Joe said.
Somehow, Rocco never lost his lust for
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,
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.