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Slice of history: As Cosmos marks its 50th anniversary, Marshall Street community mourns loss of owner

Courtesy of Lisa Webber

George Cannellos was known for making pizza at his Marshall Street restaurant, Cosmos Pizza and Grill. Cannellos passed away on Friday. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Cosmos' opening.

On Monday, the staff of Cosmos Pizza and Grill didn’t turn on the lights or unlock the door.

The popular and long-standing restaurant on Marshall Street offered a single explanation on a sign on its door: “Closed today for funeral. We’ll miss you George.”

The Friday death of George Cannellos, co-owner and founder of Cosmos, adds a note of sadness to an important time in the restaurant’s history. Cosmos, which opened in 1963 and is among the oldest establishments on Marshall Street, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

“(Cosmos) is an institution,” said Bill Nester, manager and co-owner of Manny’s on Marshall Street. “I tell people all the time, ‘If you want a real piece of Marshall Street, go have lunch or go have dinner at Cosmos.’”

Cannellos was a highly visible part of Cosmos’ tradition, said Nester, who has known Cannellos for 30 years. He described Cannellos as a “workaholic” who considered the university his family and loved being near his friends and relatives at Cosmos.

Until a few years ago, Nester said, Cannellos was always visible in the front window of the restaurant, throwing pizzas in the air and wearing a ragged, black Syracuse University National Championship baseball cap. The hats were gifts from Nestor and Manny’s.

“It would always make me feel good to see him wear it,” Nester said. “And he wore it until it was a rag.”

George had great pride in Cosmos, spending many long hours in the restaurant working and interacting with customers, said his son, Stephen Cannellos. He often joked around with his restaurant patrons, and his sense of humor allowed him to say things that others could not get away with, he said.

“Cosmos was a big part of his life,” he said.  “He was on a stage; while he was entertaining people, he also gave them food.”

George worked in food services prior to opening Cosmos in 1963 with his brother-in-law, Demo Stathis, Stephen said. The two operated concessions together at Suburban Park, an amusement park in Manlius, N.Y., that closed in 1973.

When the pair decided to open Cosmos, Stathis, an accountant, did the bookkeeping while George served as operational manager, Stephen said.

George also had entrepreneurial experience prior to opening the restaurant, Stephen said. George ran his own auto mechanic service station, and built and raced his own cars. This was a lasting interest, and he continued racing into his eighties.

“He was always quite a good mechanic,” said Francis Blasi, George’s neighbor and friend on Robineau Road in Syracuse for more than 30 years. “He was always willing to come over and help me with my car.

Blasi added that George had a “heart of gold.”

A passion for SU athletics, including basketball, football and lacrosse, was one of the reasons George chose to open a business on Marshall Street, Stephen said. George was an avid sports fan and he and his wife, Corinne, were season-ticket holders at the Carrier Dome.

He lived in Syracuse his whole life and attended several classes at SU to pursue an engineering degree after graduating from Morrisville State College, Stephen said.

These factors made Marshall Street and the SU community an appealing market for Cosmos.

In addition, SU’s food services in the 1960s were not as extensive as they are today, Stephen said, so there was a great student demand for alternative food options, especially on weekends.

Cosmos met this demand in the 1960s, and continues to offer students an escape from dining hall options even now, despite improvements in SU’s food services. Cosmos offers a rare and important experience, said Steven Papazides, manager at Acropolis Pizza House.

“They make homemade food, something your grandmother would make. You’ve got to have a lot of respect for that,” he said, adding that not many restaurants like Cosmos remain.

A close relationship with SU kept George in tune to the interests of the students.

Cosmos has evolved to serve these interests in the past 50 years, Stephen said. The restaurant expanded 15 years ago in response to long lines of customers, and the menu has expanded from the original menu of pizza and sandwiches. Cosmos now offers breakfast all day, as well as spaghetti and salads, among other options, Stephen said.

Thousands of SU students have worked at Cosmos during the restaurant’s 50 years of operation, Stephen said. His father often greeted customers, especially athletes and coaches, by first name, he said.

Even in the last two years, when heart problems forced George to do prep work in the back of the restaurant rather than making pizzas, these friends often stopped by Cosmos to see George’s familiar wave and smile.

“He’d call me up and say, ‘You’ll never believe who I saw today,’” Stephen said. “Almost everyday, he’d see somebody from the past.”

These friends include former SU athletes Ernie Davis, Jim Brown, Floyd Little and Carmelo Anthony, as well as sportscaster and SU alumnus Mike Tirico, said Lisa Webber, George’s daughter, in an email.

George was also a familiar face and part of the camaraderie among employees on Marshall Street, said Chris Colletta, assistant manager at the Blue Monkey Cafe and junior bioengineering major.

“It’s almost as if Marshall Street had a small fraternity of workers,” he said, explaining that workers at the various restaurants help each other out because they all work with the same demographic.

Both Marshall Street and Cosmos lost an important part of their identity in George, said Nestor, the Manny’s manager and longtime friend of George.

“We’ll carry on his traditions and keep his memory alive,” he said. “Will things be different? We’ve lost someone we love. How can it not?”

  • Ed

    Sad. This was one of my fondest memories at SU. I’d be walking to or from work on a snowy winter night, see the warm glow of Cosmos and there would be George making the finest pizza in Syracuse. I’d grab a slice and continue on my way. It made the cold grey slog home bearable. I still miss and talk about those slices today. RIP George.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kbavandi Karan Bavandi

    RIP George. many memorable days at Cosmos.

  • http://www.facebook.com/JSethLevin Jon Levin

    Not many words to be said, the first that comes to mind is “heart-broken”. George was one in ten million. I grew up going to Cosmos and sitting on the counter as a kid watching pizza being made. Then once old enough worked there with George and the family. I always felt as though I was part of their family.

    My condolences to all that remember and love George.

  • Guest

    Happy thoughts are with family and friends of George Cannellos as well as the extended Syracuse University family

  • Kathleen Hauge

    I knew George for 50 years and will miss seeing him when I return for Central Tech’s class of ’63 50th Reunion this fall. I left Syracuse in 1969 yet when I come back to Syracuse I always go to Cosmos. Always. It was reassuring to see George in the window every time I approached Cosmos. We’d chat, I’d take his picture, and leave with a pie. Last June was the last time we had a Cosmos pie. I was sad George wasn’t there that day to meet some of my family. We were glad to hear he was still cooking! My daughters and three grandsons were with me from Colorado and were finally able to experience what I’ve shared with them about Cosmos all these years. George was the best part of Marshall St, the best part of SU for me, and one of the best parts of my life. I hope he knew he mattered, made a difference and was loved. Kathleen

  • http://www.facebook.com/nan.lyons Nan Lyons

    I got to know George in the 70s, when my sister and I worked as waitresses at the Orange Cafe. He would give us a ride back to our dorms after we finished a shift, saying he didn’t like to see us “walking home alone at that hour.” When I visited Syracuse over the years, I could always count on seeing George, working away in that front window. It always amazed me that he still remembered who I was! I am so sad to hear of his passing.

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