Frances Vitrano, who was once Baltimore's largest wholesale celery dealer, died Tuesday of heart failure at her Towson home. She was 93.
Until she broke her ankle last year, she was office manager at the wholesale produce business she and her husband founded in 1932. They were once the largest purveyors of celery in Baltimore.
"She was an excellent businesswoman, but what she was even better at was taking care of her employees," said Rose Geppi Fischer, a co-worker who was hired by Mrs. Vitrano in 1951. "She worried about everybody, and she always made sure you had your lunch."
Born in Cefalu, Sicily, Frances Messina sailed to the United States in 1912 and lived on High Street in Little Italy with her parents.
She studied at St. Leo's Parochial School until the sixth grade, when she started sewing coats in a downtown garment plant. At 16, she was named its supervisor over many workers who were her senior.
In 1927, she married Tony Vitrano. The couple decided to seek their fortune in California, where they resided for a year. When her father became ill, they returned to Baltimore and opened a celery-trimming business several years later.
It was in the basement of her father's High Street house first, then moved to the old wholesale produce market on South Charles Street, between Camden and Pratt streets. Their building later was condemned to make way for what is now the Inner Harbor Hyatt Regency Hotel.
The Vitranos trimmed away the celery's outer stalks and sold the hearts -- the tender inner sections -- to the city's leading hotels, including the Rennert, Lord Baltimore, Belvedere, Southern and Emerson.
"She signed the bills with her initial, F. Vitrano, because not too many women ran a business then," said her son Justin A. Vitrano of Lutherville, who retains the family business, now in Jessup.
In the 1930s, Tony Vitrano was known as the celery king of Baltimore.
The Vitranos expanded into other vegetables and fruit, and moved to the old Pennsylvania Railroad produce terminal at North Avenue and Mount Royal Terrace.
During the years that her husband and sons went to work in the middle of the night, Mrs. Vitrano rose early and prepared a hot meal for them. She arrived at her desk at 8 a.m. and served her family a substantial meal at lunchtime.
She was known for many of her dishes, including stuffed artichokes, and iced Italian Christmas and Easter cookies.
A Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Saturday at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church, 110 Ware Ave., where she had been a member and communicant since 1938.
Mrs. Vitrano's husband died in 1986.
She is survived by another son, Norman A. Vitrano of Stevensville; two daughters, Verna Hall of Lutherville and Jo Miller of Towson; 17 grandchildren; and 25 great-grandchildren.