Zest for life: Flagler Beach restaurateur 'Rocky' DiBella remembered for love of family, community

Rosario "Rocky" DiBella, former owner of LaBella Pizzeria and Rocky's Pizzeria in Flagler Beach, died unexpectedly on June 3 at 72 years old.

Rocky DiBella ad his wife, Angela. Courtesy photo
Rocky DiBella ad his wife, Angela. Courtesy photo
  • Palm Coast Observer
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Rosario "Rocky" DiBella loved his family. He loved life. He loved good food.

And, he took pride in ensuring others loved his food too. 

DiBella, of Palm Coast, spent over 20 years operating two different pizzerias in Flagler Beach: LaBella Pizzeria and Restaurant and Rocky's Pizzeria. He was known as the "pizza man," said his son, Joey DiBella, and though he appeared to be a tough Sicilian on the outside, his heart was rooted in community service.

"He was just a gentle soul," Joey DiBella said. "He wanted to help anybody that he could. He loved giving back to the community."

Through the years, giving back took on different forms — coordinating the Columbus Day Festival in Flagler Beach in the mid-1990s, supporting Flagler County Youth Soccer, donating his time to Flagler Volunteer Services, and feeding kids slices of pizza when they didn't have the money to pay. 

"He would not want anything in return, and it sounds so small," Joey DiBella said. "I know a slice of pizza is not an expensive item, especially back then, but that I feel like explains and defines who he was, and how he just never thought twice about it."

Rocky DiBella died unexpectedly on June 3. He was 72 years old. He is remembered by his wife Angela, daughters Aggie Goodman and Lina Williams, son Joey DiBella, and seven grandchildren. He is preceded in death by his son Paul DiBella, his parents, three brothers and one sister, according to his obituary.

A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, June 11, at Santa Maria Del Mar Catholic Church in Flagler Beach. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Flagler County Youth Soccer.

A slice of life

Rocky DiBella was born on Sept. 12, 1951, in Castiglione, Sicily. He immigrated to the United States in 1974, two years after he met the woman who would become his wife of 49 years, Angela. The two married on March 16, 1975, settling down in Mt. Vernon, New York, where he opened his first pizza restaurant in 1980.

Rocky DiBella spent almost 20 years making pizzas for Flagler Beach residents and visitors. Courtesy photo

DiBella operated the restaurant, Pizza City, until 1986 when he and his family moved to Palm Coast. 

Two years later, he opened LaBella Pizzeria, located at 308 S. Ocean Shore Blvd., a space now occupied by Romero's Tuscany By The Sea. Joey DiBella, who was 5 years old at the time his father opened the pizzeria, said he spent a lot of time hanging out at the restaurant. All of his sisters worked there, and when he got older, so did he.

Rocky DiBella often worked long hours at the restaurant, but he cherished the time he spent with family, his son said.

"He was one of those personalities that when you were around, you had a smile on your face," Joey DiBella said. "He loved to entertain. He loved to spend time with us." 

His father also had "one of those laughs," Joey DiBella said.

"There's certain people in this world that just have one of those laughs that, when you hear them, you know exactly who that is," he said. "You know who's behind that laugh and he was one of those people. I mean, his laugh was an infectious laugh."

Rocky DiBella ran LaBella Pizzeria until 2006. Then, in 2008, he opened Rocky's Pizzeria in Flagler Beach. He then retired in 2011, closing an almost 30-year chapter of being a restaurateur. 

And opened a new one: As a grandfather who got to enjoy spending time with his grandkids and as a community volunteer, both with Flagler Volunteer Services and the Flagler County Health Department. 

Always a phone call away

Rocky DiBella was "larger than life," said longtime friend, Carl Laundrie. 

Rocky DiBella and his wife Angela. Courtesy photo

That was the first impression DiBella had on Laundrie, former longtime Flagler County Communications Manager and News-Journal reporter. The two worked on the Flagler Beach Columbus Day Festival together, which was held annually in the '90s.

DiBella started the festival to help draw customers to Flagler Beach businesses during that time of year. 

"We had fireworks," Laundrie recalled. "We set up a stage in the middle of Veterans Park right across from City Hall in Flagler Beach and had entertainment, and it was just a good thing for businesses in Flagler Beach at the time."

Laundrie, who retired from his position with Flagler County in 2015, said DiBella helped him with his job as well. 

One time, he catered a lunch for a legislative delegation. County staff had discovered that they had mixed up the date for the caterer they originally hired, two hours before the event. 

"I picked up the phone, called Rocky, and he threw his entire restaurant into high gear," Laundrie recalled.

An hour later, Laundrie was ready for the event with two huge pans of baked ziti, bread and salad. The delegation loved the food.

Helping neighbors

During the wildfires of 1998, when the entire population of Flagler County was told to evacuate, DiBella stayed behind to help first responders. 

He and his family stayed at the restaurant and DiBella and his wife worked tirelessly to help the community at that time, Joey DiBella recalled. 

"It was a scary time — a lot of people didn't know if they were going to be coming home to their home anymore," he said.

Most businesses were closed, but LaBella Pizzeria stayed open to provide food to police officers, firefighters and those who remained in Flagler Beach. 

He didn't do it to make money, Laundrie said, "but to provide something for those people who were fighting the fires and keeping the order."

That was just who he was, Laundrie said. He always offered up discount cards for fundraisers. He sponsored his son's soccer team every year and threw them pizza parties. DiBella was also a longtime member of the Rotary Club of Flagler Beach.

"Growing up in a small town in Sicily, community and closeness was a big part of the area that he grew up in," Joey DiBella said. "And when he came here, I think that carried on with him and he just absolutely loved to provide and do what he could to help out his neighbors and to do what he could to help out local organizations."

La vita è bella

The last time Laundrie saw Rocky DiBella was the Thursday before he died. 

It was routine for Laundrie, DiBella and their friend Giulio Lancia to get together every Thursday for lunch. 

DiBella, Laundrie said, was the "connoisseur of restaurants."

"He loved to talk about how they set up, knew all the people involved in restaurants and who owned what restaurant and what cook worked where — all that," Laundrie said. "You got him going on restaurants, and he's got a chapter and verse."

A favorite restaurant? Terranovas in Bunnell. 

"I used to love to listen to Rocky talking about picking the fresh oregano in Sicily — how great it smelled, hanging up oregano to dry in his house in Sicily and about his country," Laundrie recalled.

DiBella was also adept at making cork crafts. Laundrie has a few in his house, and a lot of wine corks he was saving for his friend.

"Rocky expressed himself in his art, in his food and in his cooking," Laundrie said.

A few days before his death, DiBella got to see all of his grandchildren. It was a last minute plan, Joey DiBella said, but one that has become all the more cherished.

The very last photo he has of his father is one of him holding his granddaughter, Joey DiBella's two year old daughter. When he first saw the photo, Joey DiBella thought it was a great photo. Now, he said he treasures it even more.

"It's just yet another example that we are aware of that life is precious, and life changes very, very quickly," Joey DiBella said. "We really have to always focus on what's important in life, and that's our family, that's our friends, that's the people who matter most to us, because everything can change in the blink of an eye."

Rocky DiBella and his family. Courtesy photo


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