Buffalo in the ’50s: West Side Italian radio with Mama and Papa Rico

By Steve Cichon

They were the heart and the voice of Buffalo’s Italian-American community. For 50 years, Emelino Rico — known to listeners of “Neapolitan Serenade” as “Papa Rico” and the head of “Casa Rico” — broadcast Italian music, in Italian, for Italians, from his home on Seventh Street on Buffalo’s Italian West Side.

Mama & Papa Rico in their studio at their Seventh Street home on Buffalo’s West Side. (Buffalo Stories archives)

For most of five decades, come 10:30am, the Liberty Bell March would open another program of cultural pride, personal warmth and a taste of the old country. While he was heard on many stations through the years, often two or three stations at the same time, for 45 years the Ricos were heard on WHLD 1270-AM.

Emelino came to America as a movie producer in 1922. Ten years later, on a stop in Buffalo, he met Mary Pinieri, who was destined to become the West Side’s beloved Mama Rico.

Their lives, Mama Rico told listeners to their 50th anniversary celebration on WHLD in 1985, were spent highlighting the best in Italian music and culture, “helping others, and doing charitable work.”

Heavily edited publicity photos of Mary and Emelino Rico, from the Buffalo News archives.

The Ricos worked to bring some of Italy to Buffalo, and some of Buffalo to Italy, with many trips and exchanges. Papa liked to tell the story of a 1967 audience with Pope Paul VI, when His Holiness greeted him immediately by saying, “You run the Italian program in Buffalo.”

Many of Buffalo’s most famous Italian-Americans said the time spent at Casa Rico helped jump start their career — those like Tony Award-winning choreographer Michael Bennett and pianist Leonard Pennario.

Papa Rico died in 1985, Mama Rico in 1993, but the Rico name has continued on — sons Lenny and Joe Rico have continued the family tradition of broadcasting in Buffalo.


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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. writing about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and is the News Director at WECK Radio. A 25 year Buffalo media veteran, Steve's contributed more than 1400 Buffalo History stories to The Buffalo News, worked at WIVB-TV, Empire Sports Network, and spent ten years as a newsman and News Director at WBEN Radio. He's also put his communication skills to work as an adjunct professor, a producer of PBS documentaries, and even run for Erie County Clerk. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.