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Obituary: Frank Blandi, His restaurant know-how lifted city's reputation for high class

Wednesday, December 08, 1999

By Gene Collier, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The number of city institutions and the number of Pittsburgh contributions to American culinary culture that are directly traceable to Frank Blandi might indeed be finite, but over the long course of the 20th century, their influence likely can't be quantified.

From the Stratford Club to the pecan ball, from the Pittsburgh Playhouse and the Park Schenley to the Devonshire sandwich, Mr. Blandi's business endeavors and recipes forever impacted the city's dinner society, helping to transform the city's image from a shot-and-beer persona to one with a robust appreciation for life's finer things.

Mr. Blandi died yesterday of pneumonia at UPMC St. Margaret. He'd been a resident at Harmar Village Care Center in Cheswick. He was 92.

"When I left him [Monday] night, I prayed that God would take him or that somehow he'd improve," said his daughter, Renee Byrnes. "It was getting too hard on him."

Frank G. Blandi was born to Sicilian immigrants in Dunkirk, N.Y., in 1907. His family grew grapes in an ambitious farming operation in Westfield, N.Y. Young Frank and his brother, Sam, operated the wine delivery truck to restaurants in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, but Prohibition and the Depression ultimately forced the family to move to Pittsburgh.

Operating with $1,800 he'd borrowed from his brother-in-law, some knowledge of wine and a little know-how he'd picked up on the road, Mr. Blandi first opened the St. Moritz hotel restaurant in East Liberty and then the Stratford Club in Millvale in 1932.

He'd eventually start the Pittsburgh Playhouse, the Park Schenley and LeMont.

"And he had a store in Brentwood that was full of televisions," Byrnes said. "I was the first person in my neighborhood with a television set. But really, the Playhouse was my dad's claim to fame. That's where he picked up his following. They had wonderful shows. Gene Kelly would come in."

It was in 1935 at the Stratford Club that Mr. Blandi invented the Devonshire. Because the Stratford Club sounded English and Devonshire Street intersected Centre Avenue in Oakland, and that also sounded English, Mr. Blandi, who was looking for an English-sounding name for his new sandwich ... well, you know the rest.

"First, you make the roux," he explained to then-Pittsburgh Press Food Editor Marilyn McDevitt Rubin in 1983, melting shortening and adding it to flour. "Then add the hot milk along with chicken base and grated cheddar. When we first started working on the Devonshire, it didn't look like it does now. It was flat. But by letting roux cool and thicken, then mounding it over the sliced turkey, you can build the sandwich into something real nice."

The pecan ball, the inspired collision of toasted pecans, vanilla ice cream and hot fudge sauce, would come later.

"He loved everything about the business. It was in his blood," Byrnes said. "It was a lot of late nights and long hours, but he worked it all his life. He opened a place in Kirwan Heights called Gregory's some years ago. He was about 80 at that point. He never had a hobby.

"I was talking with my sister about him and she said the thing she'll always remember was dad coming into the Park Schenley and coming into the dining room, and all eyes would go to him. He was handsome and dressed to a 'T.' He would go to each table, and he'd know everybody's name."

Alex Colaizzi, Mr. Blandi's nephew and the general manager of LeMont, remembers the generosity. "He bought me my first baseball glove," Colaizzi said. "He was just very generous. He was loved by the family. He was the head of the family."

Mr. Blandi and a restaurateur nephew, the late James Blandi, raised more than a half-million dollars for the Children's Hospital Free Care Fund by staging lavish, seven-course dinners in association with the Old Newsboys. He was proud of that, and proud that his presence was requested at the inaugurations of two presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Both the Park Schenley and LeMont were asked to prepare specialty dishes in hors d'oeuvres form for those functions.

"He was a spunky guy, even in his '90s," said Robi Ehrhardt, the controller at LeMont. "He was just a real fun guy to be around."

Mr. Blandi is survived by two daughters, Byrnes and Deborah Gatta, by a sister, Olinda Cherry of Treasure Lake, Clearfield County, and five grandchildren.

Friends may call at McCabe Bros. Funeral Home, 6214 Walnut St., Shadyside, from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. today. Mass will be celebrated tomorrow at 9 a.m. in St. Joseph Church, Dorseyville Road, O'Hara. Interment will be private.

The family suggested donations to Children's Hospital, Developmental Department, One Children's Place, 3705 Fifth Ave., Pittsburgh 15213.

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