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.
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.”
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.