Food business a squawk in the park - The Province

It's more pizza than parrots now for former Caps goalie

Steve Ewen
The Province

"Paulie want a pepperoni?"

That could be a marketing campaign for Tino Lettieri if the parrot-loving, pizza-producing former Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper ever paired up two of his favourite things.

Right now, there's no interest in that, but it shouldn't be ruled out with the ever-enterprising former backstop. Lettieri, 50, says that his Shorewood, Minn., restaurant -- Tino's Cafe Pizzeria -- is sailing along. It should be, considering it does promise "the best Italian food outside the Federal Witness Protection Program."

People also still remember Lettieri's penchant for parrots, which included stashing a stuffed toy bird named Ozzie beside his net with the Whitecaps in 1982-83. And that's even though Lettieri finished his nine-year outdoor soccer career, which also featured six seasons in Minnesota, way back in 1987.

"I still give away a few of them," says Lettieri, who went in the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame in 2001. "I have to donate some when I go to things like celebrity golf tournaments. They always want to auction off a parrot."

From the sounds of it, he might have some stuffed parrots from his time in Vancouver.

He originally fell in love with the bird when he saw a couple on The Tonight Show. He's had a few live ones over the years.

He wanted a parrot by his net for a good luck charm. Obviously, a real one wouldn't fly so he went for a stuffed toy. That became popular, so Lettieri decided to buy some that he could both sell and give away.

He ordered 10,000, apparently without doing quite enough planning.

"A guy shows up at my apartment in North Vancouver with a semi-trailer and says, 'I've got some parrots for you,' and the thing was completely full," says Lettieri, a member of Canada's 1986 World Cup team. "'Where am I going to put all these,' I thought. I put them in the apartment. I couldn't even move for the longest time. I slowly gave them away. It became quite the gimmick."

Don't judge his business acumen on that, though.

Lettieri, who was born in Italy but raised in Montreal, is the son of a baker. He's gone on to create two frozen-food companies in Minnesota and sell them off to larger companies before getting into the pizza business. One of the companies, Lettieri's, reportedly went for $30 million in 2006.

That's only added to his profile in the area. His wife, Michelle, is the daughter of longtime Minnesota North Stars player and executive Lou Nanne.

They have two kids -- Bianca, 21, and Vinny, 13. Bianca is part of the Minnesota Timberwolves dance team, while Vinny plays both hockey and soccer.

And, no, he's not a netminder.

"I steered him away from being a goalie," says the elder Lettieri, laughing. "It's better to give pain than receive pain.

"I've gotten involved in the hockey side of it. With all the businesses that I've started, and being very involved in the hockey and the soccer, I still get recognized by people. It's still great to talk to people."

© The Vancouver Province 2008