Mario J. Labadini, maitre d' of Ritz, Cafe Budapest; at 80

By Tom Long, Globe Staff, Globe Columnist, 10/10/2003

Mario J. Labadini, 80, the elegant and affable former maitre d' of the Ritz-Carlton hotel and Cafe Budapest dubbed "the knight of many round tables" by Adlai Stevenson, died Tuesday in the Lahey Clinic in Burlington.

Mr. Labadini's smiling visage was the public face of some of the finest dining establishments in Boston, including the Charles Restaurant on Beacon Hill, which he owned and operated for 13 years after his stints at the Ritz and Cafe Budapest.

"It always did something to you that was untranslatable to come in the wide Ritz hallway at the top of those elegant curved stairs and see Mario standing there, lean, tall, immaculate, wiser than most judges when it came to people," Globe society columnist Marjorie Sherman wrote in 1970.

Resplendent in a morning coat with a white four-in-hand necktie, or more formal black tie and dinner jacket at night, Mr. Labadini was the go-to guy at the Ritz whether for a busboy with badly cut fingers, a lady who couldn't open a window, or an ambassador with four extra dinner guests.

It was Mr. Labadini who kept the choice collection of Brooks Brothers ties on hand to loan to Ritz guests who were not suitably attired to grab a sandwich in the dining room.

And he was certainly the go-to guy for Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, who often called to find out if JFK was in town. While he often forgot to tell his mother he was here, he invariably showed up at the Ritz.

Among the celebrities Mr. Labadini seated were Muhammad Ali, Montgomery Clift, and Spencer Tracy. Oscar Hammerstein wrote lyrics on the back of his dinner check.

The late Globe columnist, George Frazier, gave him his highest accolade, writing that Mr. Labadini had "duende."

The son of a waiter and a chef, Mr. Labadini was born in East Boston and raised in Medford. He served in the Army during World War II.

He left the Ritz in 1970, after more than 20 years, and became general manager and maitre d' of Cafe Budapest.

There, for about a dozen years, he proved that though he was on a first-name basis with presidents and royalty, he also knew how to rock 'n' roll.

Mr. Labadini kept a chef and waiter on past the end of their July 19, 1972, shift to serve a private 3 a.m. dinner to the Rolling Stones after a concert at Boston Garden.

"His life was all about people," his son, John of Washington, D.C., said yesterday. "He always thought about the guests first and himself second."

Mr. Labadini worked his way up the ranks at the Ritz. He was a room service waiter, dining room waiter, and captain of the street bar before becoming maitre d' for 11 years.

"I was never ashamed for telling my kids I was a waiter," Mr. Labadini said in a story published in the Globe in 1978. "It's a status job. Even a waiter in a cafe has a status position. I always made good money. I brought up four kids and put them through college."

He even had a good word to say about fussy customers. "The best customers are the particular ones, because they tell you when you're wrong," he said.

When Mr. Labadini opened the Charles Restaurant on Beacon Hill in 1984, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to have his own place. And it was everything he dreamed it would be. "It was a party every night for more than a decade," said his son.

Besides his son, Mr. Labadini leaves three daughters, Ann Hamel of Franklin, Mary of Milton, and Carol of Framingham; two sisters, Esther Sileno of Medford and Alice McPherson of Nashua; four grandchildren; and his companion Phyllis Lennon of Bedford.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow in St. Patrick's Church in Watertown. Burial will be in Oak Grove Cemetery in Medford.