Tom Caldarera Jr., the popular restaurant owner and community leader who, along with his family, likely catered thousands of weddings, reunions, wakes and community events in the Fort Smith area, has died. He was 90.
Caldarera opened Taliano’s Italian Restaurant at 14th and B streets in Fort Smith with partner Jim Cadelli in 1970. The restaurant was in the renovated Sparks Mansion built in 1887, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Joe Caldarera, Tom’s son and business partner, said his dad was born and raised in Fort Smith. Tom was an only child and his dad, who emigrated from Sicily and arrived in Fort Smith in 1892, died when Tom was 15. The family, Joe said, has “been in some form of the hospitality industry since 1892,” with many early locations on Garrison Avenue in downtown Fort Smith.
Tom graduated the University of Arkansas and became an accountant, working with the late Fort Smith businessman Robert Westphal in what was then Foundation Life Insurance. That’s where he met Jim Cadelli, who also shared a rich Italian heritage. When the company that employed Tom and Jim sold, they were offered jobs in Little Rock.
“But by then, dad and Jim had really settled here, had family here. They looked around and, at the time, Fort Smith didn’t have any really good Italian restaurants. … So that’s what they did,” Joe told Talk Business & Politics, adding that Tom and Jim incorporated many family recipes into the menu that Taliano’s still uses today.
Tom purchased Emmy’s German Restaurant in 2009 and relocated the operation adjacent to Taliano’s in what was the family-owned banquet facility. Cadelli retired about five years ago, and Joe bought his share of the business. Joe said he was glad to have the time to work with his dad, who kept working well past the age when many fully retire.
“Up until COVID hit, he still worked every week. Even in his late 80’s he was down there, but with his pre-existing conditions he couldn’t be around the public,” Joe said. “You know, he served people for 50 years in this restaurant. … It was a restaurant he built from a home, so it always to him was like he was welcoming people into his home.”
Joe said his dad was also focused on giving back to the community. He was a long-time member of the Fort Smith Advertising and Promotion Commission and active supporter of Immaculate Conception church and its various groups.
Tom received in 2009 a Humanitarian Award from the National Restaurant Association recognizing his work in helping the poor and homeless. Tom served on the board of the Next Step Homeless Services (aka, Next Step Day Room) since it formed in May 2002. He also provided soup for the St. John’s sack lunch program at least once a week for more than two decades.
“He was a champion for the homeless people, for feeding people. He was one of those guys who would literally take the shirt off his back for anybody,” Joe said. “He enjoyed helping people, but not for any recognition. … And his business accolades are one thing, but I think his lasting legacy will be the good things he did for the community, and he was certainly a family man.”
Tom, who would have turned 91 on March 3, is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and seven children: Katherine Hornung, Sharon Sicard, Janet Richardson, Mary Baker, Dianne Hart, Tom Calderara, and Joe. He had 24 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren.
Fort Smith Mayor George McGill said Caldarera was a special representative for the city.
“A friend for many years, Tom always had a positive focus and loved Fort Smith. There would be a room full people, yet Tom had the unique ability to make you feel as if you were his only guest. He was one of our city’s chief ambassadors. We will miss him,” McGill said in a statement.
Sam Sicard, president and CEO of Fort Smith-based First Bank Corp., and lifelong friend of the Caldarera family, said Tom should best be remembered for his passion for service.
“Tom Caldarera had a passion for serving others and his community that should inspire everyone. He represented what is the best of entrepreneurship, the successful lifelong quest to provide decades of memorable experiences to others, including those who could not pay him in return. It’s fitting to reflect on his life on Valentine’s Day, as I can’t think of a more loving man who created a unique, special place for those to celebrate their love for one another,” Sicard said.
Caldarera died Feb. 12 in his home. The family has not yet set a memorial service date.