Celeste Lizio; Italian Cook Was Queen of Frozen Pizza

Times Staff Writer

"Mama" Celeste Lizio, an Italian cook whose commercial assurances of "abbondanza" (abundance) prompted millions of Americans to buy Celeste frozen pizzas marketed under her name, has died of heart failure, it was learned Sunday. She was 80.

Lizio lived in Wheaton, Ill., west of Chicago, and died Friday at a hospital in nearby Downers Grove.

A robust woman who never lost the accent of her native land, Lizio sold her food business to the Quaker Oats Co. in 1969, the year after her husband died, but continued to act as a television spokeswoman for the pizzas that were sold in boxes bearing her picture and name.

She was born in 1908 in San Angelo, Italy, and showed her abilities as a pasta cook early on, working in her family's small restaurant-espresso shop.

"Her own momma took her hands before she came to America and told her, 'Celeste, one day these hands will feed the world,' " her daughter, Clara Melchiorre of Woodridge, Ill., said Sunday. "Her momma was right."

Married in 1930, Lizio and her husband, Anthony, immigrated to the United States during the Depression and opened a small grocery in Chicago. She would cook in the back, offering free ravioli and lasagna to hungry WPA workers.

In 1937, the couple opened Kedzie Beer Garden, a neighborhood tavern and family restaurant that quickly became known for its bountiful plates of pasta. With her children helping in the kitchen, Lizio prepared all of the food by hand. Her secret, Melchiorre said, was her insistence on using only fresh ingredients.

"She also never measured anything; she weighed all of the ingredients in her hand," said Melchiorre, who today runs her own pasta restaurant in suburban Chicago.

The Lizios sold the restaurant-tavern after 25 years, and began marketing frozen ravioli, pizzas and other foods in bulk under the name Celeste. Their company eventually supplied more than three-quarters of the Italian restaurants in the Chicago area.

When Quaker Oats bought her out in 1969, Lizio was retained as a national spokeswoman and consultant. Her aid, corporate officials said, was essential to making the pizza, since she had always worked from a recipe in her head.

Celeste Pizza for years has commanded a major share of the frozen pizza market and Lizio has been compared to Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.

But unlike Harlan Sanders, who once publicly disdained the quality of food that was produced by the chain of fast-food restaurants that he started and later sold, Lizio continued to enjoy the frozen pizzas that were sold under her name, her daughter said.

"She sometimes would even go down and stand on the (assembly) line, making sure that everything was just right," Melchiorre said. "Food was her life."

She is survived by three sons and two daughters, including Melchiorre, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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