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‘You feel like he made a difference’: Beloved husband, father, restauranteur Mario Antonio Fundora dies at 78
Tony Fundora
Tony and Maria Fundora during an event for Purple Pansies, a nonprofit they created to help fight pancreatic cancer.

More than 700 people came to Roswell Funeral Home after Mario Antonio “Tony” Fundora, owner of Italian restaurant Casa Nuova, died suddenly on Friday, Oct. 22, at the age of 78.

Tony’s wife, Maria, and their three kids gathered in a separate room while the line of people wrapped around the building. On the dark, rainy day, some waited there for up to two hours to give their condolences to the Fundora family.

“Nobody left,” Maria said. “You just feel so comforted. You feel like he made a difference.”

Following his funeral on Saturday, Oct. 30 there was no question Tony touched the lives of many in the community, and Maria said she and the kids hope to continue his legacy for many years.

Food, family and heart

Tony Fundora
Tony Fundora opened and operated Avanti's in Atlanta from 1978 to 1987.
Tony was born on March 5, 1943, in Havana, Cuba, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1962 when he was 19. Cari, his daughter who is now 27, said he went seven years without being able to speak to his parents.

After becoming a bicentennial citizen in 1976, he began helping other family members move to the U.S. Over time, he brought 56 members of his family from other countries, including from Mexico, Spain and Costa Rica.

Learning about her father’s life before settling in Forsyth County, Cari said she recognizes how much he sacrificed to ensure his family’s happiness.

“His dedication to family was always present,” Cari said.

When he first came to the U.S., Tony had a fifth-grade education, but he learned and grew by working in the hospitality industry. He began his career in New York, starting out as a baker before working his way up as cook, chef, server and maître d.’

He came to Atlanta in 1967 where he eventually opened his first restaurant, Alfredo’s, in 1974. He operated Avanti’s from 1978-1987, Antonio’s Bakery in 1980 and then Tony’s Casa Napoli from 1982-1987.

After that, Tony met Maria. A friend set the two up on a blind date, and they quickly fell in love. After just a few months, the two knew they were soulmates. They married and opened their first restaurant -- Avanti’s Pescevino -- together in 1989.

But it wasn’t until 1998 that they opened Casa Nuova Italian Restaurant in Forsyth County. The restaurant has remained in the same place on Atlanta Road since it opened 24 years ago, and Maria said she and Tony have always taken enormous pride in the restaurant and surrounding community.

“That’s kind of how it all started,” Maria said.

Tony Fundora
Maria and Tony Fundora in front of the wine rack that now resides in Casa Nuova Italian Restaurant in Forsyth County.
No one is a stranger

Tony started a farm near their home in North Fulton where he grew all his own fruits, vegetables and flowers. The fresh ingredients helped to create delicious, fresh food for all the guests in Casa Nuova, a small restaurant where people and families can gather close together.

Maria said they always wanted to open a place like Casa Nuova to get back to their roots and focus not only on the quality of their food, but also on the service and relationships with guests.

She said for Tony, making friends in the restaurant and community was never an issue.

“Tony was a talker,” Maria said. “You’d come in, and he’d sit down, and he’d ask you, ‘Where are you from? Are you married? Do you have any kids?’”

No one was a stranger. Maria said she sometimes avoided running errands with him because she knew he would run into a friend, or even make a friend, at the store and spend hours talking.

Cari agreed that her dad was a character. She remembers telling friends and family, “They don’t make people like my dad anymore.”

She said he has always been a funny guy, cracking jokes and never afraid to talk to anyone. But on top of that, he valued honesty and respect, always telling his kids that giving is better than receiving.

Cari said he had a famous saying: “I’m not better than anyone else and no one is better than me.” He lived by that concept, always valuing the people surrounding him.

“That’s just the kind of person he was,” Maria said.

That’s why so many in the community loved Tony and his family. They always made them feel welcomed, respected and loved. His family said they hope to carry on those values, passing them on to others and continuing his legacy for years to come.

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Tony Fundora
Tony Fundora and his daughter, Cari, at Disney World.
Importance of family

Tony Fundora
Tony and Cari Fundora.
Each of Tony’s kids, having worked and grown up in Casa Nuova, share his passion for food and people.

Their oldest son, Jose, or “Pepe,” started working with his dad in the kitchen when he was 10 years old. He recalls putting on his apron, which reached down to his ankles, and standing on top of a flipped-over glass rack so he could reach the plates on the counter.

The oldest of his siblings, Pepe is now a partner of Casa Nuova, working there with Cari and Maria while their youngest brother, Alex, finishes out his bachelor’s at Savannah College of Art and Design in south Georgia.

As adults, they know how time-consuming the restaurant industry can be, but they said they look back on their childhoods and remember their parents always being right there with them.

Maria said Tony always made sure to be present. Family was what was most important to him, and it showed — even if he didn’t always have the words to say it.

About two years ago, Maria was very sick and ended up going into liver failure. She was able to get a liver transplant, but just five days later, her spleen ruptured. Maria said the experience was grueling and the recovery brutal, but through the whole process, Tony refused to leave her side.

“That really resonates with me so much,” Maria said. “I think about that a lot.”

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Tony Fundora
The Fundora family.
Tony Fundora
The Fundora family. From the left, stands Alex, Cari, Pepe, Maria and Tony.
Continuing a legacy
Tony Fundora
Tony and Maria Fundora.

Some of her favorite memories with Tony that she will cherish forever, though, are the small, everyday moments they shared together — nights spent on the couch, hugging each other, and watching TV.

The same is true for the kids. They loved simply enjoying food and conversation with their dad.

In the past few weeks, Maria, Pepe, Cari and Alex have gone through hundreds of pictures of Tony and the family on vacations they took across the world and the everyday moments spent in the kitchen at Casa Nuova, looking back on all of the amazing memories they share.

At the same time, community members from all over have started to visit the restaurant again, checking in on the Fundora family and the staff who have worked alongside Tony since Casa Nuova opened 24 years ago.

When they come in with cards, flowers and food in hand, they also bring memories of Tony, who always had a way of making an impression on anyone he met.

Maria said it has been overwhelming to see just how big the impact he made on the community was.

“The lord has taken him,” Maria said. “But his presence and his spirit and all the seeds that he planted within ourselves and everything he did — Oh my. Amazing.”