TAMPA — Two times a month, Joseph Anthony Pipitone drove 10 hours one-way from Tampa, his car loaded with loaves of Alessi Cuban bread and bottles of olive oil, bound for his Blue Ridge Mountain dream.
When he wasn't working his firefighter shifts at Hillsborough County's Station 40, he was on his way to or from Waynesville, N.C,, where he spent the other half of his life whipping up homemade soups and sandwiches for Nico's Cafe, a Cuban-Italian diner he opened five years ago with his wife, Michelle.
It was the couple's retirement plan, started a little early, Nico's manager, Rebecca Mills, said.
Decorated with firefighter pictures and family photos, the restaurant was the perfect blend of all things Pipitone loved, a taste of his Tampa upbringing in his adopted, scenic, hillside home.
On Friday morning around 8 a.m., Pipitone, an 18-year veteran of Hillsborough Fire Rescue, ventured out in a winter storm to get groceries for his family and to check on the restaurant, uncertain whether to close for the day due to the bad weather.
Highway officials said his Ford Focus slid off a private road and down an embankment, throwing Pipitone from the vehicle not far from his home.
Emergency workers found Pipitone's body hours after the accident, Mills said. Family members and Mills had been frantically trying to reach him.
Pipitone was father to three children, Nicolo Joseph, 9, Madeline Eve, 13, and Michaela Lane, 15. All attend school in North Carolina. He loved horses, and passed his love of riding to Madeline, whose competition ribbons decorate the restaurant.
Hillsborough firefighters and paramedics will remember Pipitone today with a traditional firefighter funeral at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa.
"Everybody knows him," said Ray Yeakley, spokesman for Hillsborough Fire Rescue. "He's a quiet guy, but a real friendly guy."
Mills said Nico's, though small, drew a bustling business, especially from the Floridians passing through on vacation during the summer and fall.
Pipitone's specialties were soups — including Spanish bean ,or ropa vieja — drawing from recipes he learned working in an Ybor City sandwich shop once owned by his grandfather, Mills said.
"He loved to laugh, loved to joke," Mills said. "But he had a serious side when it came time to business."
The two occasionally bickered like brother and sister, but Mills, a divorcee, admired the Pipitone family, and she told Michelle so from time to time.
Pipitone, 52, would have retired within a few years, Yeakley said.
The family will receive friends at St. Lawrence from 10 a.m. until the 11 a.m. service. An internment will follow at Garden of Memories Cemetery, 4207 East Lake Ave. The family will also hold a Jan. 13 memorial service at St. Margaret's Catholic Church in Maggie Valley, N.C.