SOUTH PORTLAND — There was a time, if you wanted to get anything done in the Democratic Party in Maine, you had to see Santo “Sam” DiPietro.

When Jimmy Carter was testing the waters for a presidential campaign in 1975, he made a late-night stop at DiPietro’s Market on Cottage Road, looking to buy a toothbrush. Kenneth Curtis, who was governor at the time and lived in South Portland, knocked on the door. DiPietro, a night owl who famously entertained visitors after hours, let the two men into the store.

“This is Jimmy Carter,” Curtis said, introducing the Georgia governor to DiPietro. “He’s going to run for president.”

In 1984, when former astronaut John Glenn was running for president, DiPietro, who died Sunday at age 81, hosted a campaign fundraiser at his home.

“My father thought the floor was gonna cave in, there were so many people in the house,” recalled Sam DiPietro, 51, his youngest child. “I got to talk about it the next day at school, how the Secret Service checked out our house and our street the day before. It was so cool growing up with that stuff.”

DiPietro was a cigar-chomping, larger-than-life son of Italian immigrants who finally succumbed after a fifteen-year battle with heart disease and diabetes, his son said. He leaves a remarkable legacy as a powerful politician, a community leader and a family man, even to some who weren’t blood relatives.

Anthony Berlucchi was “like a son” to DiPietro. He grew up near the market and started working there when he was 15. Now 44, married and a father of two, Berlucchi travels once a month from his home in New Hampshire to “volunteer” at the store. He was there Tuesday, making Italian sandwiches and pizzas while family members prepared for visiting hours Thursday evening and the funeral Friday morning.

“Big Sam and Helen, they bent over backward for me, so it’s the least I can do,” Berlucchi said.

Anthony Berlucchi of Rye Beach, New Hampshire, laughs at one of Sam DiPietro's jokes Tuesday while making a sandwich at DiPietro's Market. Berlucchi started working at DiPietro's Market when he was 15 and returns once a month to "volunteer" behind the counter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Anthony Berlucchi of Rye Beach, New Hampshire, laughs at one of Sam DiPietro’s jokes Tuesday while making a sandwich at DiPietro’s Market. Berlucchi started working at DiPietro’s Market when he was 15 and returns once a month to “volunteer” behind the counter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

FOR GEORGE MITCHELL, PIZZA AND ADVICE

Curtis recalled introducing Carter to DiPietro and stopping by many other times for a bit of advice or one of DiPietro’s “famous” Italian sandwiches.

“During my years as governor I was privileged to benefit from his counsel,” Curtis said via email. “His commitment to public service in his community and the state of Maine sets an example for all.”

Former Sen. George Mitchell called DiPietro a good friend and a great citizen of Maine.

“When I served in the U.S. Senate, I lived in South Portland just a few blocks from his store,” Mitchell said via email. “Almost every weekend I stopped there to get a pizza and advice from Sam. Both were great because Sam knew pizza and he knew people. Maine and South Portland have lost a leader, his family has lost a great husband and father, and I have lost a friend and adviser.”

Charming and self-deprecating, DiPietro and his wife, Helen, opened the now-iconic market in 1972. It soon became a proving ground for their four children, three of whom now run the market, as well as his political headquarters. He was elected to three terms on the City Council in the late 1970s and early 1980s, serving two years as mayor, and four terms in the Legislature in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

‘CIGAR SAMMY’

“He was an institution in local and state politics,” said Barry Hobbins, a Saco attorney and former legislator who served with DiPietro. “He knew everyone from Ken Curtis to George Mitchell to (former governor and congressman) Joe Brennan. He was always generous with financial assistance and political advice. And he knew how to build alliances across the aisle. He was a moderate Democrat, but he could break bread with a young liberal or an old conservative.”

Santo DiPietro with his son Sam at DiPietro's Market, which Sam and two of his siblings run today.

Santo DiPietro in a family photo with his son Sam at DiPietro’s Market, which Sam and two of his siblings run today. Photo courtesy DiPietro family

While in the Legislature, DiPietro hosted regular dinners in Augusta, where he cooked and served pasta and meatballs to both Democrats and Republicans. And his market was a must stop for any Democrat on the campaign trail.

“That kind of camaraderie is missing now in Augusta,” Hobbins said. “If he heard you were campaigning nearby and you didn’t stop by to see him at the store, he would be disappointed.”

Known to some as “Cigar Sammy,” DiPietro occasionally stirred controversy and encountered adversaries he couldn’t win over, but that didn’t bother him, his son said.

“Anybody can lead in the good times,” a legislator once told Sam DiPietro. “Your father led in the bad times.”

PROUD OF ITALIAN HERITAGE

In 1974, DiPietro co-founded the South Portland Clubhouse of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine. He was inspired to provide young people in South Portland with the same opportunity that he enjoyed at the Portland Clubhouse when he was growing up. He lived above and worked at his parents’ store on Cumberland Avenue, and he spent most of his free time at the clubhouse down the street.

“He often said if it wasn’t for the club, he’d be dead or in jail,” Sam DiPietro said of his father.

Sam DiPietro mans the counter Tuesday at DiPietro's Market in South Portland. His father, Santo "Sam" DiPietro, opened the store on Cottage Road in the early 1970s. The well-known business owner and politician died Sunday at 81.

Sam DiPietro mans the counter Tuesday at DiPietro’s Market in South Portland. His father, Santo “Sam” DiPietro, opened the store on Cottage Road in the early 1970s. The well-known business owner and politician died Sunday at 81. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

DiPietro was proud of his heritage, incorporating the Italian flag into his business signs and greeting customers with “Benvenuto” (Welcome) etched in granite at the entrance to the store. But he insisted that his children speak only English at home and made sure they had non-ethnic names: Michael, Jean, Susan and Sam.

“He was made fun of and he was held back in school because his English wasn’t so good,” his son said.

DiPietro’s father made a living blasting rock at a quarry on Sawyer Road, so he wasn’t overly impressed with his son’s prowess as a football player for Portland High School. DiPietro started working at age 8, shining shoes in Monument Square, and he learned the fine art of salesmanship working for Portland businessman Maury Drees.

A BELIEF IN HARD WORK

The lessons stuck with him. City Councilor Linda Cohen recalls walking to the market for sandwiches when her daughter, April, was a little girl, and chatting with DiPietro when he stopped by City Hall as a legislator in the 1990s, when she was the city clerk.

“He was always so nice and he always had that darn cigar in his mouth,” Cohen said. “He was a no-nonsense kind of guy and he was so supportive of the city. He was a hard worker and he believed other people should work hard too if they wanted to get ahead.”

At DiPietro’s Market Tuesday, many regular customers offered condolences as they ordered slices of pizza and sandwiches.

“He’s gonna be missed,” said Dana Michaud, 77, a longtime friend. “No doubt about it.”

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