Payson's Cucina Paradiso Italian Restaurant was honored in Washington, D.C. Tuesday for its efforts during the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.
The restaurant and its owners, John Posteraro and Gerardo Moceri, received the National Restaurant Association's "Restaurant Neighbor Award" in the single unit category for serving 30,000 meals to victims of the fire at the evacuation center established at Rim Country Middle School. The award was presented during a special ceremony at the association's 17th annual Public Affairs Conference.
"Every year, there is an Arizona winner, but we are the first restaurant in the state to ever win the national award," said Moceri, the restaurant's chef, who traveled to Capitol Hill this week to accept the award. "It's a pretty big deal."
In a press release announcing the award recipient, the association noted that the Payson restaurant is involved in several charitable activities.
"But one cause stands out: its efforts to provide meals for persons displaced by two major forest fires not far from the restaurant," the release said. "After thousands of people were left homeless following the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in June, 2002, chef Gerardo Moceri established a kitchen at the local middle school to prepare meals for the families, the volunteers and firefighters. For nearly 10 days, the restaurant served more than 3,000 meals daily."
At its peak, the RCMS evacuation center housed and fed about 800 evacuees mostly from Heber and Overgaard where more than 200 homes were destroyed. Before it was finally contained in mid-July, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire consumed 468,000 acres and leveled 467 homes.
Moceri led a team of volunteers in the school kitchen who prepared and served three meals a day. He noted that Shawn Sloan, owner of Famous Sam's, along with Safeway and Bashas' supermarkets, and other local businesses contributed to the effort.
In accepting the award, Moceri said, "Serving meals is my gift. That's what I do best."
For winning the award, Cucina Paradiso received $5,000 to advance community service programs in the Rim country.
"We're probably going to donate it to youth soccer and three or four other organizations we have in mind," Posteraro said.
Other winners in the fourth annual "Restaurant Neighbor Award" competition included the owner of Down the Street, a Montgomery, Ala. cafe, who won the "Cornerstone Humanitarian of the Year Award" for providing meals to victims of abuse and domestic violence, and Denver Chophouse and Brewery of the Rock Bottom restaurant which won the "Restaurant Neighbor Award" in the multi-unit category for serving thousands of meals to homeless people during an annual holiday dinner.
"Nine out of 10 restaurants actively participate in charitable activities, making them the cornerstone of local communities across America," Steven C. Anderson, association president said. "This year's winners, Rock Bottom Restaurants, Cucina Paradiso and Down the Street Cafe, are pillars of their communities and each truly deserves the Restaurant Neighbor Award."