When you look up in the night sky, you will always see certain stars. The reliability of this celestial dance is so certain that for millennia, sailors have navigated the vast and treacherous oceans of the world by the stars’ light. Emilio De Paola was very much like one of those shimmering points of light. For nearly three decades he shone his brilliance on everyone he met in Santa Barbara. He touched a lot of lives in this town. Like the eternal stars above, Emilio’s bright smile and ever-present optimism were a reliable part of Santa Barbara’s social and business landscape.
Born December 28, 1934, in Eccles, West Virginia, to Maria Parrotta De Paola and Michele Thomas De Paola, Emilio spent his early years growing up in a tough section of New York City known as Hell’s Kitchen. A smart, streetwise kid, he learned about business by running an old-fashioned carnival complete with rides, cotton candy, and Kewpie dolls. In the 1950s he was a strikingly handsome young man with a quick wit, unstoppable charm, and a wavy shock of thick black hair swept up in the classic pompadour style popular at the time.
A veteran of the Korean War, Emilio was also a fine builder, traveling to Saudi Arabia to build schools, as well as building and remodeling homes and businesses here in the U.S. He loved to dance and taught ballroom dancing and tango at one point in his life. What seems to have defined Emilio De Paola more than anything else was the way he looked at life and family and the prolific friendships on which he thrived. He was a wise and worldly man of character and depth whose dedication to helping others came second only to his love for his family.
Emilio, his wife Joan, daughter Maria, and son Charlie joined their other son Michael in Santa Barbara in 1980. I first met them in the mid ’80s, when several times a week I would stop by Michael Anthony’s Pizzeria on Hollister Avenue in Goleta, which opened following a fire at the original location on State Street, to pick up the very best eggplant parmesan sandwich ever made.
In later years I would see him out and about, sometimes dining out in the afternoon, or dancing in the evening. He always remembered me and said hello with a smile. His friendly brown eyes made it clear that it was a genuine recognition. He was classy and self-assured, yet lacked pretense. He personified the quintessential convergence of old-world romanticism with today’s digital, e-driven world.
In 2006 some writing and marketing projects for Emilio’s Ristorante allowed me to make weekly visits to the restaurant, where I enjoyed wine, dinner, and much good conversation with Emilio. He often spoke of his travels, his family, and his girlfriend of 10 years, Mickey Klinger. He was proud of the family’s wine business and thoroughly enjoyed representing De Paola Vineyard’s delicious zinfandel. He was never too busy to make time, even if it was only a few minutes, to say hello.
At De Paola Vineyard’s annual harvest event in October 2006, Emilio greeted me with his quiet enthusiasm, taking me on a whirlwind tour of the grand villa he’d built with his son Michael, nephew Joe Caligiuri, and Michael’s brother-in-law Brian Walker. Every room held a story. He described how the massive beams were cut and placed, how the thick doors were made and which wood was used in their construction, and how the tiles on the roof were rare, special-order Roman flat pan tiles. He treated each moment as if it were an essential part of some great play. That was Emilio, always immersing himself in the process of greeting family and friends, hugging his grandchildren, kissing people, and taking pictures with his digital camera. He loved taking pictures of people, events, and life itself. He moved about like a beam of light shooting from one end of the galaxy to the other. One minute he was here, the next minute he was there, often appearing to be in several places at once.
Reminders of him surround us. He infused himself through his craftsmanship into the construction of Dargan’s Irish Pub, SOhO, Fresco, and Emilio’s Ristorante, to name just a few. On any given day he would work out and then make his rounds to each destination, visiting with friends, sharing stories, eating good food, and creating an unforgettable life force along the way. Often he could be found dancing at the Biltmore and then later on be seen dancing at SOhO. He appreciated so much about people and music and beauty. He dressed impeccably-not in a flashy or garish manner, but with class and understated chic. His gold watch gleamed in quiet elegance while his fine shoes and slacks spoke to his refined and unpretentious sense of taste. He could make a Tommy Bahama look like the most expensive shirt in the world.
After the funeral service, attended by perhaps 1,000 of Emilio’s many friends and acquaintances, I asked several people how they had known Emilio. Each had a different story, and yet there was a common thread-it was Emilio’s kindness and willingness to help a friend combined with an almost childlike zest for life that stood out. He also gave us his beautiful children-Michael, Maria, and Charlie-and their children, and the extraordinary De Paola legacy of cousins, nephews, nieces, extended family, and friends. Although he wasn’t a politician or a movie star or a captain of industry, Emilio De Paola, an iconic man with a huge heart, left us all a little richer. So if you look up in the night sky and happen to glimpse a bright star sporting a modestly elegant twinkle, it might just be Emilio watching over us to be sure we’re all having a little fun.