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Local pizza biz owner remembers his mentor

By Clint Parker

I remember the first time I had Frank’s Roman pizza! It was a Sicilian style (thick crust pizza). I don’t know who turned me on to the pizza, but I started being a regular at the location at Innsbrook Mall. So last week I was saddened when I ran across Frank Palmeri’s, owner of Frank’s Roman, obituary.

Frank Palmeri
Frank Palmeri

‘The One, the Only, the Original,’ the slogan that graced Frank’s Roman Pizza Restaurants applied even more to the founder, Frank Palmeri. Whether he was spinning pizzas on top of a Barnum & Bailey white Siberian Tiger cage (during the Thanksgiving day parade, garnering more applause than Santa Claus), or being a staple on WLOS’s Jerry Lewis Telethon, or chasing his grandkids in a Darth Vader costume, Frank Palmeri left an indelible mark on his family, his friends, and Asheville,” read the beginning of Palmeri’s obituary (see sidebar for complete obituary).

That location was the beginning. From there, Palmeri moved his restaurant to a little traffic island out in front of the Asheville Mall. He eventually built a strip mall for his business at the corner of South Tunnel Road and Swannanoa River Road. All the while franchising his restaurant, with the help of employees, all over Asheville. At one time, there were about six locations of Frank’s.

Now, only one remains. That location is in Woodfin and is now the only location Frank’s Roman lovers can still get a pie or a slice. The location was franchised by Carl Oliver, who now owns the only location that bears his mentor’s name. I wanted to get a comment from Carl about Frank’s passing.
“I tried his pizza and really liked it,” says Oliver of his first encounter with Frank’s Roman pizza. After talking with Palmeri, Oliver said he “just had a sensation in his heart that this was the direction” he “needed to go in.” So he quit his job with Austin Powder Company and started in the pizza business, a decision he says he’s never regretted. Oliver said that Frank told him if he followed directions, he’d make some money.

That was in 1979. In 1987, Palmeri franchised his Frank’s Roman Pizza with a total of six delivery locations with Oliver as vice-president. In 1990, the Patton Avenue location was sold and Oliver said he opened the Woodfin location in 1991. It was about that time Oliver relinquished his shares in the franchise and bought his one location in Woodfin from Palmeri.

As for Oliver’s remembrance of his mentor, he said, “He was the type of person that when you talked to him, you knew there were boundaries. He wasn’t about small talk except to greet…he came from a world of ‘you mind your business, and I’ll mind mine.’”

“I learned a lot from the man,” says Oliver of Palmeri. “The man was very smart. He loved history…He said history repeats itself. If you can learn history and know what happened and what went on, you can just about guide the future…” Oliver recalls one of the best pieces of advice Palmeri gave him, “He said never gamble unless you have to…if there’s a decision you have to make. Don’t gamble unless you have to.”

Asked about his feeling about being the last of the Frank’s Roman Pizza businesses, Oliver, a person of faith, said, “I knew that this was something God had in mind for me. I’m glad that I found that out.”

Frank Palmeri Obituary

‘The One, the Only, the Original,’ the slogan that graced Frank’s Roman Pizza Restaurants applied even more to the founder, Frank Palmeri. Whether he was spinning pizzas on top of a Barnum & Bailey white Siberian Tiger cage (during the Thanksgiving day parade, garnering more applause than Santa Claus), or being a staple on WLOS’s Jerry Lewis Telethon, or chasing his grandkids in a Darth Vader costume, Frank Palmeri left an indelible mark on his family, his friends, and Asheville.

That was the beginning. From there, it  moved to a little traffic island out in the middle of Tunnel Road.

In 1977, in a car with 5 cracked pistons and a ragged vinyl roof, Frank Palmeri left New York City with his wife and small baby looking for a better area to raise a family. Embracing a ceaseless work ethic, he built a local pizza empire based on the principles that “You don’t have to be greedy. There’s enough out there for everyone.” Frank wanted a place where you could eat a pizza pie that couldn’t be beat. A restaurant where families could have a wholesome and affordable meal. He grew his business by cultivating young workers into business owners and entrepreneurs. He lived by the mantra, “Lift as you climb.” And lift he did! At the peak, he had five restaurants owned and operated by former employees. He believed people helping people was better than any government handout. Frank was an authentic one-of-a-kind person who believed that the American dream is achievable to all with hard work and sacrifice.

He did not preach virtue or religion with words; his actions spoke volumes. He was humorous, generous to a fault, and always ready to share his business acumen and love of history.

Left to carry on his legacy is his wife of 47 years, Joanne Palmeri, his sons, Doctor Martin Palmeri of Messino Cancer Centers, and Frank John Palmeri, the local owner of America’s Mattress on Tunnel Road where Frank had his last restaurant. Martin and his wife, Laura, have three wonderful grandchildren, Frank, Charlie, and Maria that are Frank’s pride and joy.

The Palmeri family would like to thank Doctors Charles Bryan, Matt Hull, Oliver Binns, Roger Domby, and Greg Campbell as well as the countless APs, RNs, CNAs, and the staff of the Mills River Lodge who diligently and compassionately cared for him.

We also thank the Asheville community for the decades of support. Frank loved serving everyone who came in for first dates, family movie nights, anniversaries, and every meal in between. In gratitude for his food and hospitality, customers honored him with napkin drawings which donned every corner of the restaurant when he retired in 2002. We can’t thank you enough.

A Funeral Mass was held at 11am on Saturday, January 4 at St. Barnabas Roman Catholic Church, followed by a brief reception at the church. A Graveside Service was held at 2  pm on Saturday, January 4 at Riverside Cemetery. A Rosary was started at 6 pm on Friday, January 3 in the Chapel of Groce Funeral Home at Lake Julian, followed by a visitation at the funeral home until 7:30 pm.

In lieu of flowers, kindly support local small business owners and their hard work, long hours, big dreams, and gutsy decision to take risks to get ahead. The current business world needs more Frank Palmeris. We love you, Frank, always have and always will.

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