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Armando Paolo, 81; made pizzas, memories at Cambridge shop

Mr. Paolo tossed dough for 45 years at his pizza shop on Huron Avenue in Cambridge. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2002/Boston Globe

Armando Paolo had a surefire secret for why his Cambridge pizza shop developed such a loyal following. “I serve good food here,” he confided in a 2002 Globe interview.

Longtime customers who have patronized Armando’s Pizza on Huron Avenue for 45 years – from one generation to the next to the next – swear by his pies, but the most memorable part of many a visit wasn’t on the menu. It was Mr. Paolo himself.

“Anybody who came into the pizza shop, he treated them with respect and generosity. That was my husband,” said his wife, Dorothy. “And he loved the kids. He used to give them cookies when they came in.”

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Their daughter Rina Bonavita, who is now the proprietor, recalled that Mr. Paolo would delight young patrons by letting them get their hands dusty with flour: “He would have little kids come behind the counter and make pizza – ‘Come on back and help me roll the dough.’ ”

Mr. Paolo, an Italian immigrant whose name now adorns the Cambridge intersection near the pizza shop he opened in 1971, died of cancer Sept. 16 in his Arlington home. He was 81.

When he spoke with the Globe in 2002, a rival pizza shop had opened nearby about a year earlier. Was he worried?

“Please,” he said. “When you do the best, you don’t have to worry about it.”

Generations of families became patrons, returning to Huron Avenue even after moving to the suburbs. “We know people for 40 years,” Rina said. “We know the parents, we know the grandparents. Every time they come in, they come to us.”

In a review of Boston’s 12 best pizza joints, the Globe noted in February 2015 that Armando’s “happens to make superb pizza” and that “the only sad faces are on newbies at the register realizing it’s cash only.”

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It wasn’t just the food that made Mr. Paolo popular in the neighborhood that became known as Huron Village during the decades since he set up shop.

“Mr. Paolo’s involvement in the Cambridge community goes beyond his pizzeria,” the Cambridge City Council said in a 2010 proclamation when the intersection up the street from Armando’s Pizza was named Armando Paolo Square. “Armando is an active parishioner at Saint Peter’s Church, a sponsor of Little League teams, and a friendly face in the neighborhood around Huron and Concord Avenues.”

Photographs of teams he sponsored dotted the restaurant’s walls over the years. Sometimes he would go to the John M. Tobin Elementary school a few blocks away to read to children – “The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza)” was a favorite choice.

“Known for his generosity to his community, Armando has even given food to those who have nowhere else to turn,” the City Council’s proclamation said.

One time, an old friend who was down on his luck spent the night sleeping in the doorway of Armando’s Pizza. When Mr. Paolo arrived to open up, he brought his friend inside and made him a meal.

“People would call him in the middle of the night. He’d get dressed and he’d go. He helped a lot of people,” said his daughter Linda Gullotti of Everett. “The Cambridge community loved him. If he could feed the world, I think he would. He had a heart the size of Texas, my dad. If somebody didn’t have money to pay, he’d say, ‘Come back tomorrow, no worries.’ ”

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Born in Benevento, Italy, Mr. Paolo “had a very, very tough upbringing,” his wife said. “He kind of brought himself up, to tell you the truth.”

He was a boy when his family had to scavenge for food during World War II, and would later tell stories about incidents such as the time he was foraging in an olive tree “and a German officer saw him, but for some reasons he let him go,” said Rina, who lives in Malden. “It was a very difficult time for him. His family had absolutely nothing. He knew hunger; he knew poverty.”

The end of the war wasn’t much easier. “When he was 14, they put him on a boat with an 11-year-old brother and a 16-year-old sister and they crossed the ocean,” his wife said. “He had to be a father to his brother and his sister. He sent them to school and he went to work. Then little by little things got better.”

Mr. Paolo learned to read English, sometimes a word at a time, by reading newspapers. Then one day at a social gathering he saw Dorothy Tortorici, whom he married in 1957.

“We met in the North End,” she recalled. “We were childhood sweethearts. We would go to little dances in the Italian community twice a week. He had his eye on me and I had my eye on him.”

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He worked in various jobs until buying his first pizza place, near Central Square in Cambridge, and learning the art of making memorable pizzas. “I must have burned a thousand pizzas before I got it right,” he said in 2002.

“He followed the American dream, he really did. He wanted to own his own business and be somebody, and finally he was somebody,” his wife said. “There were times in the beginning when he was putting in 16-hour days, and I was there with him.”

At the outset of the 1970s, Mr. Paolo moved away from Central Square and opened up his pizzeria on Huron Avenue, where business increased from several pizzas a day initially to more than 200 daily by the early 2000s.

“Each year it got better and better,” his wife said. “He was a top-notch father and a top-notch husband as well. We really were lucky. A lot of work, a lot of perseverance, but it happened with the help of God.”

A service has been held for Mr. Paolo, who in addition to his wife, Dorothy, and his daughters, Rina and Linda, leaves his other daughter, Angela Gallego of Chelmsford; three grandchildren; and two grand-grandchildren.

“He built our family. We are where we are today because of him,” Linda said. “I was incredibly lucky and blessed to have him as a father.”

Mr. Paolo, she added, “was the salt of the earth. He enjoyed his family, he enjoyed going down to the North End, he enjoyed being with his friends. He was such a good guy.”

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Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.