Russell Patronaggio, a neighborhood bakery owner who also produced specialty cakes for visiting celebrities and who owned a stable of harness racing horses, died Saturday in his North Tonawanda home after a short illness. He was 71.
A native of Italy, Mr. Patronaggio came to the United States as a teenager and worked as a donut fryer and eventually as head baker at Buffalo bakeries until he went into business for himself at Russ' Bakery on South Park Avenue in South Buffalo.
He moved his business to Lafayette Avenue and Grant Street on Buffalo's West Side in 1971 and later to 294 W. Ferry St. near Grant. Besides serving neighborhood customers, Mr. Patronaggio was a frequent vendor of baked goods at festivals including the Italian Festival and many church fundraising festivals.
The retail bakery was closed near Christmastime in 2010, but Mr. Patronaggio continued to operate a vending stand at various festivals.
He also baked and decorated cakes for celebrities who performed in the Buffalo area. The list included Tony Bennett, whose cake featured a model of the Golden Gate Bridge; Perry Como, with a cross ring that Mr. Patronaggio said Como wore on his pinky finger; and Elvis Presley, whose cake was decorated with a guitar.
The cakes were delivered to the performers backstage at the former Melody Fair or wherever the star was performing.
Mr. Patronaggio and his wife, the former Patricia Porto, also owned more than 30 harness racing horses through the years, mostly in the 1980s. They stabled most of the horses at Buffalo Raceway but sometimes kept a few at the family's large lot at home. The horses raced primarily at Buffalo Raceway and sometimes at Batavia Downs.
Among their better-known horses was WithSong, trained and driven by Jimmy McNeight.
Mr. Patronaggio also was a farmer, planting vegetables for his family and friends.
Survivors, besides his wife, include two daughters, Nancy Esposito and Rosalie Duke; a son, Sal; two sisters, Antoinette Minnuto and Nicoletta Piraino; and a brother, Anthony.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Wednesday in St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church, 800 Niagara Falls Blvd., North Tonawanda.