Antonio Fundora, 78, dies - a force in Italian dining in Atlanta

990128 NORTH FULTON, GA --Antonio Fundora (cq), owner and head cook at Casa Nuova on Hwy 9 North in Alpharetta, prepares freshly cooked fine Italian cuisine. He holds two of their popular specialties, Zuppe Di Pesci & Linguini with fresh grouper, clams, mussels, calamari and scungilli sauteed in white wine, plum tomato sauce, garlic and italian herbs at $19.95; and to the left a dish of Veal Francese, medallions of veal buttered and sauteed in white wine and fresh lemon butter sauce at $12.50. (ALICIA HANSEN/STAFF)
Caption
990128 NORTH FULTON, GA --Antonio Fundora (cq), owner and head cook at Casa Nuova on Hwy 9 North in Alpharetta, prepares freshly cooked fine Italian cuisine. He holds two of their popular specialties, Zuppe Di Pesci & Linguini with fresh grouper, clams, mussels, calamari and scungilli sauteed in white wine, plum tomato sauce, garlic and italian herbs at $19.95; and to the left a dish of Veal Francese, medallions of veal buttered and sauteed in white wine and fresh lemon butter sauce at $12.50. (ALICIA HANSEN/STAFF)

Credit: AJC staff

Tim Brown had never seen anything like it.

The parking lot and nearby streets at the funeral home were packed with visitors for his longtime friend and beloved Atlanta restaurateur Antonio “Tony” Fundora.

Friends, customers, current and past employees and colleagues waited for hours to pay respects to the family and memories of Fundora.

“It was just wild,” he said.

And it was a fitting tribute to a big-hearted chef who was a creative force in restaurants such as Casa Nuova in Alpharetta and the long-time iconic Italian eatery in Atlanta, Alfredo’s.

Tony Fundora made sure an extra ingredient went into each serving of lasagna, pasta pescatore and eggplant parmesan his kitchens dished out.

“He said ‘We are putting love in our food, and that makes us different from every other Italian restaurant,’” said wife Maria Fundora.

Fundora — who with Maria opened Alfredo’s on Cheshire Bridge Road in 1974, sold out in the 1980s, then went on to found Avanti’s and other dining outposts — died of a heart attack Oct. 22. He was 78. Survivors include wife Maria, children Pepe, Cari, Alex, Tony Jr. and Tania Perrella and siblings Ruben Fundora and Teresita Fuentes.

A 1962 refugee from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Fundora fell in love with Italian food In New York, learning the restaurant trade there and in Atlanta before debuting Alfredo’s. Remembered for its astounding number of menu items, it became an Atlanta staple with intimate seating, semi-formal service and finely-tuned take on Italian classics.

But the food was only part of the story. Employees became like family, as did many customers.

“If you walked into our place, we’d know that you liked Ruffino Chianti Classico or a vodka martini with olives, " said Maria Fundora. “And veal francese with a side of fettucine alfredo. We’d ask about your family and about your trip to Mexico. It would feel like coming home.”

Employees got the same care and feeding. After selling their last Avanti’s in 1996 and exploring the produce business the couple returned to their roots, opening Casa Nuova in Alpharetta in 1997.

There, as he’d always done, her husband delighted in cooking for the staff before the restaurant opened daily.

“It was like a sacred time,” said Maria Fundora. “We’d sit together as a family and he’d hold court. He’d say, ‘Today we’re going to have such-and-such specials,’ and he’d talk about ‘staying on top of the tables,’” — his way of emphasizing that good service was just as important, if not more so, than the food.

Fundora’s credo was straightforward. Work hard. Be on time. Practice responsibility. Be prepared to serve the public, with not a hair out of place or an untucked shirt in sight. Put money aside for tough times.

And no free rides.

Son Pepe said “When I was growing up, I said to my dad ‘All my friends have an allowance.’ He said, ‘What’s an allowance? ’I explained and he looked at me and said, ‘I allow you to live.’” The message was clear. You want spending money? Get to work.

Fundora may have taken a no-nonsense approach with his children, but he doted on them as well.

“I remember two things would make Tony’s face light up,” Brown said. “One was when you talked about his family. When he spoke of his kids, he got this big smile on his face. The second was his farm.”

Fundora’s meticulously-tended urban garden became an integral part of the 22 acres the family acquired when they moved to Alpharetta in 1979. If he wasn’t in the kitchen in trademark T-shirt and shorts, he could frequently be found on the farm puttering about on one of his ten — yes, ten — tractors.

The early 2000s found fresh, organic zucchini, corn, squash, basil, oregano and more finding its way onto Casa’s menu.

“We were one of the first, if not THE first farm-to-table restaurant in Atlanta,” said his wife.

Growing far more produce than they could ever use or can, Fundora’s guests frequently left with a bag of fresh veggies.

That generous spirit and a genius level of food creativity were unwritten parts of Fundora’s menu, colleagues said.

Provino’s founder and decades-long friend John Bogino recalls Fundora stopping by his place one day as Bogino weighed what to do with a superabundance of tomatoes from his own garden.

On the spot, Fundora said “Let’s make roasted garlic tomato soup.”

The pair promptly headed to the kitchen and whipped up a substantial batch.

“It was fantastic,” said Bogino.

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