Charley DiBella, who, with his family, ran one of Galveston’s favorite neighborhood restaurants for almost 30 years, died Tuesday after a four-month illness. He was 71.
Born and raised on the island, DiBella was a Galveston icon whose generous waist size some considered a walking advertisement for the Italian food served in his restaurant, 1902 31st St.
He was known for greeting patrons at the door with a hug and making the rounds to ensure everyone was enjoying the food.
The restaurant, which had survived storms and fires, was a favorite gathering spot for locals and a repository of island history. Its walls were covered with old family photos, massive group collages of students from DiBella’s alma mater, Kirwin High School (now O’Connell College Preparatory School), and photographs of celebrities and locals.
The family closed the restaurant in July as DiBella struggled with illness.
DiBella and his wife of 39 years, Joan, left Galveston briefly in the 1980s, but returned in 1989 and vowed never to leave again. He once said the only time he left the island was to go to the airport for vacation.
“It is like a little piece of Galveston died today,” said one friend.
Gary Gilliland remembered DiBella as a business associate as well as a friend.
“We shared many vacations and holiday meals together,” Gilliland said. “He will be missed as a close friend.”
Fellow restaurateur Paco Vargas, owner of Rudy & Paco in the island’s downtown, said he was devastated by the news of DiBella’s death.
“Galveston has lost a such a fine man. He was always willing to help anyone who asked,” Vargas said. “He was a great man and a legend.”
Plans for a memorial service/celebration of life still were being made Wednesday.
DiBella is survived by his wife; his brother Frankie; his stepson Danny Tilson and Tilson’s wife, Teresa; nieces, nephews; and grandchildren.