By Jill Keppeler
Niagara Gazette — At the hostess stand at Pane’s Restaurant, Esther Pane’s photograph smiles at diners who enter the North Tonawanda institution, a memorial to a legacy that touched many lives in the community — and a continuing presence at the restaurant that extends beyond her picture.
Esther Pane died Thursday at age 88 at the Cleveland Clinic, said Jim Pane, one of her seven children and the current restaurant proprietor.
“She made so many friends at the restaurant over the years,” he said. “People are coming into the restaurant with stories; some are crying. A lot of people still know her.”
The former Esther Paone was born March 7, 1924, in Conflenti, Italy, emigrating with her family to the United States in 1932, when she was 7. The family came through Ellis Island and settled in Lockport. She eventually married Peter Pane Jr. and moved to North Tonawanda, where they started the restaurant on Payne Avenue in 1959.
“When they decided to open an restaurant, they worked at steel factories, my father and grandfather,” Jim Pane said. “They came down to opening a mechanic shop or a restaurant. My mom had the final say. She wanted a kind of business where she could help. She didn’t think she’d be able to at a mechanic shop.”
Peter Pane Jr. died in 1988 after 47 years of marriage. Esther Pane worked full time at the restaurant until the early 1990s, but continued to be a presence there — a legacy that continues on the menu, Jim Pane said.
“Just about all of our basic recipes that we have today are hers — her sauces, her dressings, her soups,” he said, adding that his mother loved to cook and entertain and garden. He was recently looking at old photographs and found a picture of his own first birthday cake, an elaborate carousel that his mother had constructed.
Jim Pane’s wife, Elizabeth, said that many people at the restaurant, both diners and employees, have been sharing memories of its co-founder for the past several days, from her kindness and compassion to her work ethic.
“She was part of the community for such a long time,” she said. “Sometimes people work in the community, but she was part of it. Always cooking, cooking was the big thing. It wasn’t just in the restaurant. She did a lot with the church, helped with charitable organizations, and she volunteered in what ways she could.”
Jim Pane said that his mother was very proud of the restaurant, which has grown from that small tavern to a landmark capable of seating 350 guests and hosting banquets and parties.
“She was a terrific mother; she was always doing something for someone else, for her family, for her business,” he said. “She was very proud of the restaurant, how things have been going well for us, how we have the support of community. She loved to drive by and see the restaurant. It was kind of her connection to my father, after he passed.”
Calling hours will be noon to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. today at the Brunner Funeral Home, 156 Robinson St., North Tonawanda. A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at Our Lady of Czestochowa Church.