Title: Army Private, Civil War; gourmet chef and restaurant owner
Birthdate: May 15, 1835
Death Date: March 18, 1886
Plot Location: Section 24, Lot 3 1/2
Nunzio was born to the owner of a large hotel in Naples, Italy and grew up learning the art of cooking for his father’s guests from the French chef who worked there. He was destined to follow in his footsteps. The 1850s in Italy were years of political upheaval, economic distress, and scarcity of food that gave Nunzio plenty of incentive to seek a better life in America.
Instead of going through standard emigration procedures he was hired as a chef aboard the USS Constellation in 1858. Eventually the ship arrived at Philadelphia in 1859 where Nunzio sought his fortune, becoming the chef at Girard House, one of the city’s upscale hotels and eating establishments. He also became the groom of Elizabeth Mount in 1860, and this photo was taken shortly afterward. His reputation as a chef soared, and so did his patriotic spirit, especially as “Union fever” spread in 1861. Nunzio enlisted in Company A of the 114th Pennsylvania Volunteers, known as the “Zouaves” because of their flamboyant dress, as illustrated here.
Captain Charles Collis of Philadelphia formed the company of Philadelphians to serve as the bodyguard unit for General Nathan Banks, also of Philadelphia. The two officers may have even known Nunzio from when they dined at the Girard House. They expressed their pleasure to have a gourmet chef in their ranks by putting his skills to work as they spent the winter in Frederick, Maryland.
The 114th pushed south in the spring and summer of 1862, and clashed with Confederate troops at the Battle of Cedar Mountain near Culpeper, Virginia. It was a loss for the Union, and one of the 13 casualties in Company A was Private Finelli. A bullet through the cheek took out some teeth and disfigured his nose. He was hospitalized for several weeks, then discharged and returned home by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the Girard House had been converted into a military clothing factory, but Nunzio was promptly hired as the chef for an exclusive private men’s club called The Union League. He worked there full-time through 1869 but continued as their renowned catering chef for the rest of his life. In 1866 he opened his own restaurant, Cafe Finelli, becoming prosperous enough to establish a second location at Broad and Chestnut Streets. It was just a block north of the Union League building, which is still there today and operating three private golf clubs in the Delaware Valley.
In 1872 a group of prominent Italian Americans came together to create and erect a statue of Christopher Columbus in Fairmount Park. It would be their contribution to the nation’s upcoming Centennial celebration. As president of the Columbus Monument Commission, Nunzio led the $18,000 fundraising effort. He spoke before a large crowd at its dedication in 1876, attended by the governor, the mayor, and the Italian ambassador to the U.S. The statue has since been moved to Marconi Plaza in South Philly.
In the 1880s Nunzio’s two sons, William and Elijah, joined him in the business, but in 1886 he suffered from and succumbed to chronic kidney disease, then known as Bright’s disease. He belonged to numerous fraternal orders and lodges, all of which were represented at his funeral. The burial service at Mount Moriah was conducted by the Eastern Star of Masons.
William died two years later at age 27 and was buried beside his father, as was Elizabeth in 1908. As would be expected, without the prominent figurehead at the helm, the businesses were eventually sold. Elijah continued as a caterer and restaurant owner in Atlantic City. Nunzio’s daughter, Beatrice, even married a caterer. Their son William enlisted to serve his country, just like his grandfather. He paid the ultimate price, sacrificing his life in France during World War I.
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