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Pat Cetta, Co-Founder of Sparks Steak House, Dies

Posted: January 28, 2000

Pasquale Cetta, cofounder of Sparks Steak House, a New York institution and a longtime Wine Spectator Grand Award winner, died of a heart attack on Jan. 24. He was 66.

Cetta, who was called Pat by everyone who met him, opened Sparks in 1966 with his brother, Michael, in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan. The brothers' success prompted a move to the restaurant's current location on East 48th Street in 1977, and a loyal and ever-growing clientele led the Cettas to double the restaurant's size in 1998.

Sparks is a classic in the tradition of great New York steak houses, a clubby place filled with businessmen who carefully drape their suit jackets over their chairs before tucking into enormous steaks or giant lobsters.

But the restaurant stands apart for its wine list, which was one of the inaugural class of Wine Spectator Grand Awards, in 1981. Over the years, Pat built a cellar of more than 100,000 bottles, and he had a well-known penchant for disappearing into the cellar to bring some special treasure to the table.

"I never met a restaurateur more enthusiastic about wine or more committed to the role it played in his restaurant," said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator, who first met Cetta in 1972. "Pat was a friend to every wine lover. His creative and passionate approach to wine has been an example for restaurateurs across America. We will all miss him."

While the wine program has made Sparks a mecca for wine producers from all over the world, the restaurant's openhanded hospitality also draws a more rough-and-tumble crowd. This Runyon-esque side of Sparks became enshrined in legend in 1985, when Gambino crime-family boss Paul Castellano, a regular customer, was gunned down just outside the restaurant's front door.

Pat welcomed them all. A large man with a gruff manner but a surprisingly gentle smile, Cetta called everyone "beautiful" and made anyone feel at home. He was the front man for Sparks, and his enthusiasm, generosity and boundless energy drew people to the restaurant like a magnet. Cetta was also a stalwart supporter of the restaurant industry, helping young people make their way, and his generosity was boundless. He made a habit of buying his oversized wine bottles at charity auctions, and he never balked at paying far more than market value to help out a worthy cause.

Sparks was closed today to honor Pat. "The entire staff is devastated," said Michael, who was too upset to speak at length about his brother. "There are so many memories. We've been together forever."

Cetta is also survived by his wife, Kathleen, and his sister Angela Strelkof. Private funeral services will be held on Saturday, Jan. 29, at 10 a.m. Visitation is scheduled for today, Jan. 28, at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, at 1076 Madison Ave. (at 81st Street) in New York, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

-- Thomas Matthews and Dana Nigro

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