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He's the Chef 

Though he wasn't present in the birthing room, his grandfatherly smile triggers the earliest of blurry postnatal memories: a twinkle in the eye, a full belly. Rolling meatballs, and plateaus of face-smearing red sauce.

He's the face on the tin can: former Clevelander Hector Boiardi, known to three prepackaged generations as Chef Boyardee. But millions of misdirected mother fixations aside, the man behind the mustache was — well, let's just say he wasn't slumming on the couch, eating cold ravioli in his chef's getup.

"He was the most elegant gentleman I ever met in my life," remembers his nephew, Paul Boiardi, who lives in a demure, castlelike mansion on a hilltop in Milton, Pennsylvania. "He'd become a nervous wreck if you ever caught him without a tie."

A four-star chef who once cooked for President Woodrow Wilson, the Italian-born Boiardi — who started his canned spaghetti business in Cleveland in the 1920s — became the cook at a West Virginia resort when he was just 21.

"That's why he grew the mustache — to look older," says Paul Boiardi, adding that his gregarious uncle kept the mustache until he died, in 1985 at age 87, in Parma. Paul, whose own dad died young, calls Hector a surrogate father.

"We traveled all over the world together," he says. "Too bad you didn't get a chance to meet him. He looked like the picture on the can."

In the early 1920s, Hector moved to Cleveland and opened his own restaurant on Woodland Avenue. The top-hat-and-tails crowd didn't mind getting his sauce on their cuff links.

"Somebody said, "Hector, can I take some sauce home with me?'" says Paul, whose father, Mario, helped run the business. Hector obliged, but then customers complained that it didn't taste as good at home. "And he'd say, "Well, you're using the wrong type of pasta.'"

A friend told Hector that, rather than coach the clueless, he should just offer the entire meal to go. He took the hint.

The Boiardis, who Americanized their name for the can, moved to Milton in 1928, when Hector got a good deal on an abandoned silk mill. His pasta industry revived the town and made him a rich man.

Paul's daughter, Paula — grandniece of Chef Boyardee — says she has never tasted any of the Chef Boyardee products. But Paul's favorite is the rigatoni.

"Now this is weird," he says. "I've got the television on mute, and they're advertising Chef Boyardee rigatoni." Time to get the can opener. — Putre

Laura Lee will talk about Hector Boiardi and other famous namesakes when she reads from her book, The Name's Familiar, at Borders Westlake, 30121 Detroit Road, Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Call 440-892-7667.

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