Carmine L. Cassese, a third-generation owner of the 86-year-old Youngstown landmark Cassese’s MVR, and who for many was a larger-than-life figure who touched countless lives in this community, died late Friday. He was 57.
Jon Murphy, a long-time family friend and spokesman, said Cassese died at home of complications related to pancreatic cancer. He was surrounded by family at the time of his death, Murphy said.
“He’s a special person. He and his family are extraordinary people,” said former Youngstown State University head football coach Jim Tressel, who worked closely with Cassese when he served as the program’s head equipment manager. “He was an inspiration in that everything he did was for other people.”
Cassese was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his pancreas on Feb. 6 and later had surgery to remove it. Staffers at James Cancer Hospital at the Ohio State University Medical Center, where Cassese was receiving treatment, said they had never witnessed so much support for one patient before.
By the time the sun rose Saturday and news had spread of Cassese’s death, an outpouring of condolences and well wishes were posted to social media sites, and a bevy of those who knew the man known affectionately as “Carm” were quick to weigh in on the energetic friend who seemed to leave an impression with all who were close to him.
In 1996, Cassese became owner of the historic Cassese’s MVR eatery and sports bar, after his father, Joseph L. Cassese, passed the business to him.
It was Cassese’s grandfather, Carmine T., who started the business at 410 N. Walnut St. in 1927, building the restaurant in front of his home on the property. After Prohibition ended, the Mahoning Valley Restaurant was only the second location in the city to receive a liquor license, and today it remains Youngstown’s oldest continuous license.
Under Cassese’s leadership, the MVR became a destination spot at a time when the city’s downtown languished. Cassese’s pride in the MVR led to the installation of bocce courts, patios and additional dining rooms.
“There’s so much to say about him, but his pride in developing and growing a business in downtown Youngstown was evident in the pride he took in the customers that walked into the door — that’s why those customers were family to him,” said his son, Joseph J. Cassese, who serves as general manager at MVR. “He always, always incorporated family into that passion — from our family to other families — he was a visionary for downtown.”
For many, that vision was contagious, and a restaurant in the Smoky Hollow area of Youngstown came to be a fixture in the lives of current and former residents throughout the city and the Mahoning Valley.
“MVR became a haven after games to celebrate or commiserate,” said Paul Gregory, alumni director at Cardinal Mooney High School, where Cassese graduated in 1973. “We all migrated there to share in our joys and sorrow.”
John D’Apolito, co-owner of Valley Home Health Care, who also graduated from Cardinal Mooney in 1985 and whose daughter currently works at the restaurant, said his friend Cassese was a natural at running the business, saying his acumen helped retain the family-oriented atmosphere that makes the food taste as if it were cooked by the customer’s own family.
“He ran a great business. It’s not just something for Cardinal Mooney, everybody in Youngstown enjoys it down there because of what he’s been able to do” D’Apolito said. “It’s like you’re going to a family dinner on Sunday, but you’re going out. I’m an Italian guy and I don’t eat [Italian food] out, but I’ll eat it there. The food is fantastic.”
Cassese was born July 30, 1955, in Youngstown to Joseph and Carmela Cassese. He was raised on the city’s South Side, where he grew up on Rush Boulevard.
He attended St. Dominic Elementary School and Cardinal Mooney High School before graduating from Ohio State University in 1977 where he studied industrial arts.
“He was a tiny guy, but he had a big heart and he was a friend of everybody,” said John Young, principal at Cardinal Mooney who coached Cassese when he was a sophomore on the school’s junior varsity football team. “He was a great kid to have around, you know. He kept things loose and light. He was a joker, the happy-go-lucky sort.”
After graduating from OSU, Cassese returned to Cardinal Mooney to teach industrial arts in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His love of football and knowledge of the game, though, eventually landed him at YSU where he served as head equipment manager for 25 years before, retiring in 2011.
During his time under former head football coach Tressel, YSU won four national championships and contended for others.
“When you’re trying to have a family atmosphere, everyone has to be like-minded, and Carm was very much a family-oriented person,” Tressel said. “He was there for the students, the program, the school and the community.”
Former YSU head football coach Jon Heacock, who stepped into the role after Tressel left for OSU and is now an assistant at Purdue University, agreed. He was always impressed with Cassese’s dedication to his hometown team.
“Guys like Carm, they’re not just the equipment guy. That guy was incredible to our players,” Heacock said. “We always knew our players were going to get the best we had. They were going to get the best that Carm had as a person and the best equipment he could give them.”
Cassese’s dedication and modesty extended well beyond YSU, said Cardinal Mooney’s Young.
Cassese used his connections there to ensure the Mooney football team was properly outfitted each season. He also organized Thursday night spaghetti dinners at MVR for the players and was instrumental in ensuring that bus trips and other events were organized, especially when his sons played there.
“He was a great father, but he was a great father to all the kids,” Young said.
Bo Pelini, a Cardinal Mooney graduate, former Ohio State defensive back and now Nebraska football coach said, “He’s the greatest role model as a dad and in his professional life. He will be missed..”
YSU head football coach Eric Wolford has created an award in Cassese’s honor, which will be given annually to the YSU upperclassman who best embodies Cassese’s overachiever spirit.
The funeral will be at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at St. Dominic Church, 77 E. Lucius Ave.