Willy Cellucci, 57: General manager of Atlanta Palm restaurant

Friends of Willy Cellucci loved to hear him tell stories. And it didn’t matter if it was his story, or someone else’s. It was going to be epic.

“He’d tell his story, and it’d be the best you ever heard,” said Lance Jaglarski, a friend and colleague. “But then he could take one of your stories and tell it, and it’d be the best you ever heard. He could make anything sound good.”

For the past 16 years, Cellucci was general manager of the Atlanta Palm, the steakhouse he opened in the former Swissotel, now the Westin Buckhead.

Jaglarski, who is also general manager and has had the title for about a year, said he still hasn’t settled into it.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever really feel like the general manager here,” he said. “The Palm in Atlanta will always be Willy’s.”

William Joseph Cellucci, known as Willy by all, died Sunday from complications of laryngeal cancer. He was 57.

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Feb. 24 at the East Lake Golf Club, Atlanta. H.M. Patterson & Son, Oglethorpe Hill, is in charge of the cremation.

Cellucci couldn’t stay away from his birthplace of Los Angeles. His parents moved to the Northeast when he was child, but when they divorced he went back to LA with his mother. He traveled to France and attended what was then called the American College of Paris, then returned to the U.S. and enrolled at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English, according to his corporate profile on the Palm website.

Cellucci learned the restaurant business the old-fashioned way. While in Paris he worked at a restaurant to pay off a bar tab he’d racked up during a pinball tournament. And in D.C., Cellucci started bartending.

“In the old days, that’s how restaurant people got started,” said his wife, Jonelle Cellucci. “They go to culinary school now, but (back) then they often started as bartenders and waiters and that sort of thing.”

After graduation he managed a few small restaurants in D.C. and then New York. He came back to D.C. and went to work at the Prime Rib, where he remained until joining the staff at Morton’s, his wife said. His career with Morton’s took him back to his beloved Los Angeles, where he stayed until he had an opportunity to open the Atlanta Palm, just in time for the 1996 Olympics.

Cellucci’s larger-than-life presence will always linger in the kitchen, dining room and nooks and crannies of the Atlanta Palm, his co-workers said. And his name will likely be called several times a night as his famous cocktail, “Willy’s Pinky,” lives on. Its recipe? A shot of orange Stoli and cranberry juice.

“Willy’s overwhelming goal was to make sure everyone who walked through those doors had a good time,” said Jeff Phillips, chief operating officer of the Palm Restaurant Group. “He defined the word ‘host.’”

In addition to his wife, Cellucci is survived by his sons, Daniel Cellucci of Ithaca, N.Y., and Jack Cellucci of Athens; and sister, Constance Borde of Paris.

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