Alex Ciampi’s friends used to tease him that they had seen his mother at various locations throughout Greater Portland.

Ciampi finally caught on to what was really going on. They had seen his mother, but not in person.

Theresa (Ricci) Ciampi’s smiling face – she is holding a spoon covered in tomato sauce in the photograph – became the signature advertisement for Portland-based Amato’s Italian Sandwiches in the late 1970s.

The advertisement appeared on the side panels of the city’s fleet of Metro buses as well as city taxis, her son said. Her smiling image traveled throughout Greater Portland.

“Theresa knows a real Italian when she sees one,” was the phrase that accompanied the mobile advertisements.

Mrs. Ciampi, who died Saturday in Portland at age 78, was proud of her Italian heritage. The daughter of Italian immigrants, the longtime Portland resident grew up and worked in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood. She was a lifetime member of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Parish.

Her parents, Luigi and Theresa Atripaldi Ricci, arrived in Portland as immigrants in the early 1900s. Mrs. Ciampi’s father worked as a longshoreman on Portland’s waterfront, but eventually all the family members teamed up to run the family store: Commercial Fruit on India Street.

“We all worked there,” Alex Ciampi said. “As a kid, I can remember putting soda bottles away. It was a blast. That’s the place where I learned about family values, honesty and getting along with people.”

Commercial Fruit, located in the heart of Portland’s Little Italy, operated from about 1950 to the late 1970s. It was a grocery store that specialized in selling Italian food.

It became a gathering place for the Italian community, as well as politicians like former Maine Govs. Joseph Brennan and James Longley. Several former professional wrestlers also frequented the store.

Ciampi remembers that his grandmother made giant sandwiches for pro wrestlers Bruno Sammartino and Andre the Giant.

His mother did a little of everything – working the checkout counter, stocking produce and staffing the deli counter.

Another gathering place in the neighborhood was Amato’s first store, on India Street.

“As a kid, I’d go up there for a sandwich and they’d come to our store to buy stuff,” Ciampi said.

When the family sold Commercial Fruit, Mrs. Ciampi went to work for Amato’s. At some point, her photograph ended up on Amato’s menus.

“Somehow, it went from there to the sides of buses in Portland,” her son said. “That was my mother’s pride and joy, having her picture on the buses in Portland.”

Mrs. Ciampi eventually worked for the Hannaford supermarket on Forest Avenue in Portland.

Her favorite job at Hannaford was working behind the deli counter.

“That was her comfort zone,” her son said. “People would come into the store to talk to her. Working was fun.”

She retired from Hannaford in 1996.

Mrs. Ciampi, her sisters and friends resurrected Portland’s Columbus Day parade in the mid-1980s. The parade had been discontinued, but “they got it going again,” her son recalled.

She marched in the parade for six or seven years before it once again fell out of favor with the public.

Ciampi, who was an only child, said his mother was a wonderful parent. She also loved kids.

“Our house was always full of kids. They were a big part of her life,” he said. “She could light up a room with her smile. She had this glow about her.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]