The 1950s marked wrestling’s first Golden Age with shows that would routinely sell out and performers that captivated the country, one regional territory at a time. Previously viewed as more of a circus attraction than must-see theater, wrestling broke into the mainstream and struck a chord with every age group, background, and demographic.
“There was more of an emphasis on mat wrestling back then, a luxury that today’s wrestlers aren’t afforded,” modern wrestling legend Mick Foley told Slice, in between stops on his national Have A Nice Day tour. “I really love that. They could tell a great story by grabbing a hold and working a body part.”
Wrestling matched boxing’s intensity while adding an element of storytelling, with a clear-cut juxtaposition of babyfaces (good guys) and heels (scowling jerks who hit babyfaces with low blows and heavy objects). It also helped that most crowds were unaware of wrestling’s choreography and planned outcomes. Then again, the same could be said for some of that era’s boxing matches.
The throngs of paying fans also didn’t realize that most of the performers were living paycheck-to-paycheck and leaping at any opportunity to work.
“For those guys, there was always a sense that you didn’t know how long it would last,” said Foley. “Even if someone was on top of the business and doing well, that opportunity could be taken away by injuries or the politics of the industry.”
That reality was not lost on Ilio DiPaolo, one of the period’s most popular babyfaces. And, money aside, he had another boyhood fantasy on his mind.
Even as he collected pinfalls, submissions, and belts all around the world, DiPaolo dreamed of settling down and opening a pizzeria in Buffalo.
DiPaolo was born in Introdacqua, Italy, a small village in the Abruzzo region. There, he was known as the Hercules of the town – a strongman who could lift or smash anything put in front of him. Those natural talents led him to a yellow-hat job in construction, and some occasional matches, up until a military detour sent him into World War II.
The war left Italy reeling and left DiPaolo unemployed. In 1949, he moved to Venezuela where he met famed promoter Toots Mondt, who had just convinced Madison Square Garden to lift its longstanding ban on pro wrestling. Mondt showed DiPaolo the ropes and signed him to tour in the United States, but visa issues tied him up and prevented him from entering the country.
Unable to perform in America, DiPaolo wrestled in the Dominican Republic and Cuba. Finally, in 1951, he arrived in New York where he took bumps for promoter Pedro Martinez and fell for his daughter, Ethel.
Ilio couldn’t speak English, Ethel couldn’t speak Italian, and Pedro couldn’t stomach their marriage.
“He got my father kicked out of the country,” said son Dennis DiPaolo. “So, he went to Haiti for a bit.”
In Port-au-Prince, he challenged local hero Omelio Agramonte, a ranked boxer who twice went the distance with Joe Louis. DiPaolo won the “mixed contest” in the third round, pinning Agramonte in front of 17,000 furious Haitians. DiPaolo lost his two front teeth that night, but he felt fortunate to make it out of the parking lot.
Once he made it back to the states, DiPaolo was booked all over, but he was hardly limousine ridin’ or jet flyin’. He and Ethel slept on the side of the road for tour stops in Montreal, Minneapolis, and everywhere in between. Up north, he won the NWA Canadian Tag Team titles with Whipper Billy Watson, a long-awaited breakthrough in his career.
DiPaolo was “over” – a hit with fans. In San Francisco, he sold out arenas and partnered with future Football Hall of Famer Leo Nomellini (Occasionally, he faced off against the 49ers legend. Wrestlers can be fickle.) He dazzled in Texas, where he showed impressive agility for a 6’3”, 260-pound wrestler (a giant, more or less, by the era’s standards). In Australia, he dizzied opponents for four months straight with his signature “DiPaolo Airplane Spin”.
Meanwhile, the DiPaolo faction was rapidly growing. With four kids in the stable, they settled down in Buffalo, where dad routinely teamed with Bruno Sammartino in the early 60s.
Turns out, he was big in Japan, too. In 1963, he toured with masked friend/foil Dick “The Destroyer” Beyer and captured All Asia Championship gold. The popular gaijin were asked to return. “The Destroyer” said yes, and went on to become one of Japan’s biggest stars.
DiPaolo said no, because he wanted to open a pizzeria in Buffalo.
“Even as he wrestled, my father always thought about having his own restaurant. Every city he went to, all around the world, he was fascinated by the food,” Dennis said. “In Italy, they went hungry during the war. When he got here, and realized the streets weren’t lined with gold, he wanted to make sure no one went hungry again.”
In his home country, DiPaolo had a knack for turning oregano, basil, tomatoes, and whatever protein his family could find into something spectacular. He did the same for his family in Buffalo and stretched their meager grocery budget into dinner for six.
“When we complained that there was nothing to eat, he’d go, ‘Nothing to eat? Watch this,’” Dennis recalled. “He’d whip out herbs, potatoes, tomatoes, bologna – whatever was there – and he’d make the most delicious breakfast or lunch. My friends passing by would always ask what we’re making. I didn’t really have an answer, I just knew it was going to be really good.”
Word of his kitchen skills might have been limited to his street, but everyone in Western New York knew and revered him as a wrestler. Years later, his stardom wound up saving his restaurant. DiPaolo put his entire savings into his first pizzeria, only for it to burn down months later. When the bank declined to loan him money, one of his fans came to his rescue.
“He built my dad a new pizzeria without an advance, in exchange for $99 per month once they opened,” Dennis said. “My father couldn’t believe it. They told him, ‘Your name is your collateral, we know you’ll make good on it.”
DiPaolo, in fact, made good on it, and he vowed to repay the people of Buffalo for their support and generosity. Even before the restaurant started making real money, he sponsored little league teams and disabled children, and gave whatever he could to those in need.
In time, the restaurant grew to be a Buffalo institution for homestyle Italian meals, backyard bocce, and even weddings. It also became a must-visit for wrestling’s biggest stars when they performed in Buffalo – Goldberg, Rob Van Dam, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, and Mankind, just to name a few.
“Everyone always told me about Ilio’s in the locker room and I knew that all the wrestlers went there after shows in Buffalo,” Foley recalled. “I didn’t get to go there during my wrestling days, because I was notoriously frugal and I didn’t treat myself to great restaurants like Ilio’s. But, I finally went when was in town last year, I fell in love with the food and the atmosphere.”
Fans, neighbors, and colleagues rallied around the DiPaolo’s family after his passing in 1995. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and other Buffalo Bills stars collected donations in the locker room to honor DiPaolo’s memory. That money seeded the Ilio DiPaolo Fund, which has awarded roughly $1 million in scholarships and donations for the less fortunate.
DiPaolo’s children and grandchildren, who grew up working in the kitchen, picked up where he left off. This year, the family-run restaurant will celebrate its 55th anniversary as both a Buffalo staple and a magnet for wrestlers who come for a glimpse of history.
“We’re a smaller and tighter fraternity than athletes in other sports. Millions of people have played organized basketball or baseball or football,” Foley explained. “But, it takes a special breed it give this stuff a try. We’re all bonded by our passion for something as wild and wonderful as pro wrestling.”
Ilio DiPaolo’s, located minutes away from New Era Field, is open Tuesday-Sunday for lunch and dinner.
Hardcore wrestling legend and best-selling author Mick Foley will perform in Oxnard, California, Erie, Pennsylvania, and everywhere in between on his 2020 Have A Nice Day Tour. Click here for tickets and additional info.