'You'd better cry for me': Community honors popular CT deli owner after battle with cancer

DARIEN — For James Morrissey, a 2020 graduate of Darien High School and former Hindley School attendee, the death of deli owner Frank Colandro hits home in a variety of ways.

After an extended battle with cancer, the beloved owner of Mama Carmela’s Italian Deli died June 12 at the age of 61. Colandro has been battling cancer for 11 years. After five years, he had said he is lymphoma free, but the 320 hours of chemotherapy destroyed his stem cells, placing him at high risk for leukemia.

Faced with the need to fortify himself for yet another health battle, Colandro earlier this year took to social media to find a stem cell match. The quest now has ended, leaving his friends and family recalling memories of their friend.

For Morrissey, who would walk across the street to the deli from Hindley School starting at age 8 — and many, many other students and residents — it is a sad day.

“He was just an amazing guy,” Morrissey said, noting the special attention he gave his many young patrons—in particular those involved with the various local sports teams he helped support.

In fact, Morrissey and other seniors on the varsity football team have a special poster on display on the deli showing their team photos, numbers, and their favorite things to order at Mama Carmela’s.

“It would make you feel special that your face was up there,” he said, noting that Colandro was literally the face of this popular deli and had been for 20 years.

A lifelong resident of Stamford, Colandro’s father owned and operated Stamford Box Lunch, where he worked in his early years. An avid sports fan and classic car enthusiast, he opened Mama Carmela’s in 2001.

“He was good to me all those years,” said Carlos Ruano, a 15-year veteran of the deli. “That’s why I’m still here.”

He acknowledged Colandro’s sense of humor — telling Ruano several times during his ongoing illness, “You’d better cry for me.”

“He was Italian, so he was a little tough, but he was good to us,” said Patty Franco, a 13-year veteran employee of the deli.

“If you needed something, Frank would give it to you in two seconds,” she said, noting his generosity with the kids in particular, including the many regular customers from Hindley.

Many people in the community became aware of Colandro’s first bout with cancer 11 years ago, for which he received intense treatment at a hospital in Boston. When it returned five years later, he sought to find a matching stem-cell donor for a transplant, but to no avail.

Hundreds of community members — loyal customers to Colandro — even took part in a massive search to see if a match could be found.

“He wasn’t ready to go,” Susan Hunter, a 13-year employee at the deli, said. “He was ready to get his transplant.”

Like others, she enjoyed a playful relationship with her boss, whom she said had a terrific sense of humor, even amidst their many verbal altercations in the middle of a frantic working day at the busy deli.

“He used to tell everybody he would never get married because of me,” she said, recounting how he would regularly chastise her for doing things her way at the deli, despite his being the owner and her boss.

“Then he used to walk out the door,” Hunter said. “I would never walk out, but he would walk out and he owned the place.”

Dee Attisani of Darien, whose children attended Hindley and who works there herself, had nothing but praise for Colandro.

“Frank was the type of guy that, looking at him, once you knew him, he was your friend,” she said.

She said his death had really shaken up everyone, given his continued involvement in the community and how much he meant to everyone.

“I can’t even explain it to you how much he was part of this community,” she said.

Friends and family are invited to call at the Cognetta Funeral Home & Crematory, 104 Myrtle Ave., Stamford, on Thursday from 3-8 p.m. A mass is scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m. at St. John’s Church, 1986 Post Road, Darien, right across from Mama Carmela’s.