Carmine Smeraldo, who created and led Seattle's Il Terrazzo Carmine restaurant, died Jan. 11 after a stroke.

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The food is one thing at Il Terrazzo Carmine.

Then there was the man.

Carmine Smeraldo would greet customers at his Pioneer Square restaurant with warmth, offering a handshake, or oftentimes, a hug. He knew loyal crowds turned up for perfectly smoked salmon dishes and handmade ravioli stuffed with bursts of wild mushroom.

But he also knew his customers wanted more. They came for an experience, an escape, a desire to envelop their senses and return to their lives a little happier than how they felt an hour — or two, or three — before.

At this, Mr. Smeraldo was the master.

Which is why word spread fast and furious when, on Dec. 26, the man who immigrated from Italy with a second-grade education and went on to build a reputation as one of Seattle’s finest restaurateurs suffered a debilitating stroke.

Mr. Smeraldo died Wednesday (Jan. 11). He was 69.

“His restaurant was like a religion,” said Luciano Bardinelli, a longtime friend. “It was a well-oiled machine. And he was the conductor.”

Mr. Smeraldo grew up in Naples, Italy, one of six children, said his wife, Maria Smeraldo, of Medina.

He survived a meager upbringing. When he was a little boy, “his mother threw his books out the window and told him to go to work,” Maria Smeraldo said.

He immigrated to Ontario, Canada, at 19, and found a job scrubbing hotel toilets. After moving west to Vancouver, B.C., he worked his way up to the Four Seasons restaurant and met the celebrated chef, Umberto Menghi, his wife said.

Despite his lack of schooling, Mr. Smeraldo was a quick study. He sought knowledge with intensity and could rival the most educated in the business with his confidence and unwavering work ethic, she said.

Alongside Menghi, Mr. Smeraldo absorbed lessons in the art of fine dining. In 1984, he opened the high-end Il Terrazzo Carmine in Seattle.

Tom Owens, a third-generation Seattle Italian, was there on opening day. He’s been a faithful customer ever since.

“(Mr. Smeraldo) was one of the only guys who knew what the hell he was doing” when it came to Italian food, Owens said. “The food is something I’d be proud to serve out of my own kitchen.”

Hints of Italy

The interior summoned Mr. Smeraldo’s homeland with its terra cotta floors, rustic chandeliers and high ceilings.

It conveyed a feeling of “old-school romance,” said Seattle Times restaurant critic Nancy Leson.

The restaurant played a role in Mr. Smeraldo’s own love story. In the mid-1980s, he met his second wife at a café just a few blocks from Il Terrazzo. She happened to be the owner.

The couple “fell madly in love,” Maria Smeraldo said, and got married. She soon left the business to focus on raising their two boys.

At 5 feet 5 inches tall, Mr. Smeraldo was not a big man. But his charisma more than made up for it, Leson said.

Fierce competitor

Yet a fierce competitor lay underneath. He could be tough on his staff — a “brutal, benevolent dictator” — and had no patience for mediocrity, Maria Smeraldo said.

“He took each and every complaint about his restaurant to heart,” she said. “He would be embarrassed,” and work immediately to remedy a problem.

The stress of the restaurant business eventually took a toll.

Mr. Smeraldo and his wife had agreed that he would slow down in 2012. They had been married almost 30 years. Their two sons were in college. They wanted to enjoy themselves without the restaurant taking center stage, and had planned a January trip with friends to Cabo San Lucas.

On Dec. 26, as the couple were getting ready to go to dinner, Mr. Smeraldo suddenly lost his balance. His wife screamed to their son, CJ, and his friend to call 911. In 20 minutes, Mr. Smeraldo was at Overlake Hospital Medical Center, where the stroke was diagnosed.

It left Mr. Smeraldo unable to speak or eat or drink. In a physician’s directive, he had stated he wanted no life support.

The couple had made a promise long ago that when death was near, to let it happen in their own bed, with their arms wrapped around each other.

So Maria Smeraldo took him home. Over the next several days, she slept next to her husband.

On Jan. 11, at 9:30 p.m., he drew his last breath. She was there, holding him tight.

In addition to his wife and son CJ, Mr. Smeraldo is survived by son Philip, of Seattle; daughter Paula Daniel, of San Diego; sisters Pina Vairo, of Naples, Italy, and Anna Paniccia of Niagara Falls, Ontario; brother Tulio Smeraldo, of Milan, Italy, and two grandchildren.

A Mass for Mr. Smeraldo will be celebrated at 4 p.m. Friday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 9460 N.E. 14th St., in Clyde Hill.

A party celebrating Mr. Smeraldo’s life is being planned at the restaurant. Those details haven’t yet been worked out.

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or On Twitter @soniakri.