That first Thanksgiving at Donatello included waiters in tuxedos, soft pink lighting and all the traditional foods - turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberries and pasta.

OK, that last one might not be a standard. But for more than 30 years, the Tampa restaurant has made it a tradition at its annual charity meal.

In the mid-1980s, shortly after opening, co-owner Guido Tiozzo celebrated his first Thanksgiving by inviting foster children and families to eat for free. A small crowd came. In the last 10 years, Donatello has served around 1,000 each holiday.

“He made a significant impact through his generosity and willingness to give back to this community, which he loved so dearly,” said Bobby Bowden, who was director of community affairs for the city of Tampa and has attended all 32 Thanksgivings at Donatello.

As an Italian immigrant, Thanksgiving wasn’t a tradition Mr. Tiozzo grew up with. But the spirit of the holiday is something he embraced and embodied.

He died on May 15 due to a series of health issues. He was 82.

Guido Tiozzo started his career as a bar back and busboy in Switzerland and worked his way up to own several restaurants. (Photo courtesy Gino Tiozzo)
Guido Tiozzo started his career as a bar back and busboy in Switzerland and worked his way up to own several restaurants. (Photo courtesy Gino Tiozzo)

In his hometown of Venice, Mr. Tiozzo’s family sold vegetables. He never went hungry, said his wife, Alessandra Tiozzo, but that beginning shaped him. He always felt for people who struggled.

Mr. Tiozzo’s son, Gino, said his father left Italy at 19 for Switzerland. He later lived in London and the Bahamas before returning to Venice to open a restaurant and bar called DeVidi.

In 1984, Mr. Tiozzo moved to Tampa to open Donatello with Cesare Tini. A month later, the Tampa Tribune’s Lynne Perri wrote that the food was “a notch above the norm.”

“Donatello,” she said, “is too good to keep secret.”

Guido Tiozzo was always at the front door, his son said,
Guido Tiozzo was always at the front door, his son said, "but he was the hardest worker in the building when it was busy." (Photo courtesy Gino Tiozzo)

The idea to open up on Thanksgiving and serve foster families started with then-Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman. She pitched it to Mr. Tiozzo. He didn’t hesitate.

“It wasn’t even a question of ‘we’ll get back to you,’ “ she said. “He said yes right away.”

Those early years weren’t too organized, Alessandra Tiozzo said. But each year, Donatello and the city refined the tradition, including other agencies and people who should be at the tables.

A 1995 story in the St. Petersburg Times noted that Coca-Cola flowed like champagne at that year’s feast.

“We should do much more. Lucky people like us, we don’t do enough,” Mr. Tiozzo said then. “Ciao!” he said to the kids as they left. “Happy Thanksgiving!”

Left, Thanksgiving coverage from the Tampa Tribune, Nov. 24, 1995. Right, a Donatello ad from 1989.
Left, Thanksgiving coverage from the Tampa Tribune, Nov. 24, 1995. Right, a Donatello ad from 1989.

The annual dinner at Donatello wasn’t supposed to be a tradition. Freedman hoped they could do it for a couple of years.

“We never dreamed it was going to take off and that they would be so willing and so gracious about it,” she said.

It now takes nearly 100 volunteers, numerous organizations and the time of staff, family and friends to pull off. They shuttle the diners to and from Donatello.

So many people put in a lot of work to get that turkey and penne pomodoro onto the tables. But Gino Tiozzo’s dad taught him to focus on their own blessings.

“He said to me one day, ‘We should be thankful every day if we unlock the doors and people walk in.’ ”

Guido Tiozzo had one son and four grandchildren. He’s pictured here with family on a trip to Pisa, Italy. (Photo courtesy Gino Tiozzo)
Guido Tiozzo had one son and four grandchildren. He’s pictured here with family on a trip to Pisa, Italy. (Photo courtesy Gino Tiozzo)

For the first time since the tradition began, Mr. Tiozzo didn’t make it to Thanksgiving at Donatello last year.

Afterward, he spoke with his son, who had already taken over the restaurant. He wanted to make sure it had gone well and that everyone was taken care of properly.

He always expected professional service, excellent food and a memorable experience, whether you had deep pockets or empty ones.

“He was exactly what a restaurateur ought to be,” Freedman said. “In addition to the great food and service, he was the most welcoming and gracious and gallant.”

This year, the Thanksgiving tradition will go on, just as Mr. Tiozzo would have wanted.

“It’s something like Christmas that will exist always,” his wife said. ”So we continue.”

Gino Tiozzo and his father, Guido, at Donatello, which the younger man now runs.
Gino Tiozzo and his father, Guido, at Donatello, which the younger man now runs. "He learned well from his father," said former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman. (Photo courtesy Gino Tiozzo)

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Want to know more about Mr. Tiozzo? Head over to Instagram and @werememberthem to see one way his son will remember him. Know someone who has recently died whom we should write about? Send suggestions to Kristen Hare at [email protected].

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