THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Arthur Castraberti, 86; owner of Prince Pizzeria

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / June 30, 2011

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At times it seemed inevitable that Arthur Castraberti would spend his days and nights feeding customers Italian cuisine, including the delicacy celebrated by the Leaning Tower of Pizza that helped make his Saugus restaurant, Prince Pizzeria, famous.

“I’ve spent a lifetime in pasta,’’ he told the Globe in 1995. “My family was weaned on it.’’

The son of a salesman for Prince Macaroni Company, Mr. Castraberti bought a failing 12-seat drive-in pizza stand from the company in 1961 and turned it into an expansive 700-seat facility during decades when he became as well-known for his charity as he was for his gregarious presence welcoming an endless stream of customers.

Mr. Castraberti, who somewhat reluctantly came to like the Leaning Tower of Pisa replica that adorned his business, died of heart failure Tuesday in Union Hospital in Lynn.

He was 86 and divided his time between homes in Sarasota, Fla., and Lynnfield.

“There are times when I thought it was tacky and wished it wasn’t there, but now that I’m older and more mellow, it is more a source of pleasure than it was,’’ he said told the Globe in 1990, adding that at one point he considered removing the tower many customers and passersby consider a landmark on Route 1.

Over the years, he became a landmark himself, greeting diners by name and making sure he knew something about each family that walked through the door.

“He never considered himself to be the ultimate restaurateur, but in his own way, he truly was with his smile and his passion for people,’’ said his son, Steven of Wenham, who now runs Prince Pizzeria with his wife, Trisha.

“If you were walking into that restaurant, you were walking into his home,’’ she said. “If there were 700 people in the restaurant, he knew everybody by name. People would get out of their seats and hug him.’’

In 1999, Mr. Castraberti’s other son, Paul, who now lives in Vero Beach, Fla., told the Globe that a particular philosophy guided his father’s approach to the business: “My father used to tell us, ‘Treat the customers like family. They’re putting you through college.’ ’’

Learning each customer’s name was a tradition Mr. Castraberti started when he first ran the restaurant in 1961, said his son-in-law, Michael Harrington of Beverly.

“He’d ask the person’s name, and when the pizza came out, he’d say, ‘Hey John, here’s your pizza,’ ’’ said Harrington, who worked for his father-in-law for about a quarter century. “As the restaurant grew, he loved that personal touch, and that’s why they still do it today.’’

Steven said his father’s “whole relationship with the customers was the unprecedented part. He had a depth of knowledge about people, who they are, who their children are, who their cousins are. People loved going to a place where they were recognized.’’

Born in Somerville, Arthur O. Castraberti was the youngest of three children and grew up in Medford.

His father had emigrated from Italy to the United States in the early 1900s and worked for Prince Macaroni.

“He sold pasta on the road and knew all the Italian dialects,’’ Steven said.

The elder Castraberti was surprised when his only son wanted to attend college after graduating from Medford High School and serving with the Army in the Pacific during World War II.

Mr. Castraberti studied biochemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, from which he graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

He worked for the Canada Dry beverage company and lived in the Midwest before Prince Macaroni recruited him to return to the Boston area. Prince soon wanted Mr. Castraberti, a vice president and manager of the Lowell plant, to head its Canadian division.

Rather than uproot his young family and move out of the United States, he asked to buy Prince’s pizza stand on Route 1 in Saugus.

At the outset, he worked seven days a week, teaching weekdays and hustling back to spend afternoons, evenings, and all of each Saturday and Sunday at the restaurant, running the place with his wife.

Mr. Castraberti had met Rose Marie Bucci when they were growing up in Medford. They married in 1953.

As the restaurant expanded, at one point adding the Giggles Comedy Club, the couple also took part in community and charitable activities, including helping create the Route 1 Businessmen’s Association, a precursor to the Saugus Chamber of Commerce.

“My dad was definitely a larger than life person,’’ said his daughter, Linda Harrington of Beverly. “He was a strong person. A businessman first, but always kind and gentle,’’

After meeting a young girl with neurofibromatosis, Mr. Castraberti and his wife began raising money for research into the genetic disorder. In 1993, a research grant was named in their honor. Mrs. Castraberti died in 2000.

“He always told us the more you give, the more you get,’’ his son-in-law said. “Most of the blessings in his mind were the friendships. He kind of collected people.’’

Much of Mr. Castraberti’s largesse was low-key and known mostly to those who benefited from his generosity, whether they be nonprofits, sports teams, or people who savored his food without picking up the tab.

Senior citizens ate free on the birthdays of his parents, and “he taught us to reach out and help people,’’ his daughter-in-law said. “If someone needy came to the restaurant and couldn’t afford the meal, he wouldn’t charge them. He would feed everybody. There were some days when I think he gave away more food than we sold.’’

In 2007, Mr. Castraberti married Claire E. (Moran) Riley.

“He had a zest for life that was incomparable,’’ she said. “He laughed more readily than anyone I knew, and he’d laugh at himself, too. He had that personality.’’

In addition to his wife, daughter, two sons, daughter-in-law, and son-in-law, Mr. Castraberti leaves six grandchildren and his wife’s four children, Margaret Riley of Watertown, Maryann Biondi of North Andover, Daniel Riley of Hudson, N.H., and Richard Riley of Portsmouth, N.H.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. tomorrow in Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Lynnfield. Burial will be in Oak Grove Cemetery in Medford.

“My dad and I never hung up the phone without telling each other we loved each other,’’ his daughter said.

“He loved his family, he loved his restaurant, and we’re all really going to miss him,’’ her husband said. “You know everybody’s mortal, but he seemed like one of those guys who you thought was going to be around forever.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.