Theresa Vasselo started baking cookies in the basement of her McKees Rocks home from old Italian recipes handed down by family members, and before long her hobby became a full-fledged business that is now a local landmark.
Mrs. Vasselo, the owner and founder of Theresa's Italian Bakery in McKees Rocks, died Thursday at UPMC Mercy after a four-year battle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a rapidly progressing neuromuscular illness. She was 61.
She was diagnosed with the illness in September 2009 and had not worked at the bakery since then.
"The last text message she sent to me was, 'Make sure your father brings cookies for Rita,' her nurse," said Julia Konitzky, Mrs. Vasselo's daughter, of Mars.
A child of Italian immigrants, Mrs. Vasselo grew up in McKees Rocks, where her parents settled after coming to America. She met Nicholas Vasselo while she was in the 10th grade working at Park Bakery in McKees Rocks. She left school at age 17 to marry him. She turned her attention to homemaking, which included baking homemade cookies and cakes for family and friends.
Before long, Mr. Vasselo converted the family's basement to a bakery, complete with commercial ovens. As more businesses, such as Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., wanted to start selling Mrs. Vasselo's cookies, her small enterprise grew to the point where she needed more room, which prompted her to move the operation out of the house around 1995 to a storefront on Broadway Avenue, where it still stands.
Today, the business has 10 employees and its baked goods are sold on the shelves of many supermarkets throughout Western Pennsylvania.
"The whole thing grew out of my wife's love for baking cookies, cakes and making candy," Mr. Vasselo said of his wife of 44 years. "She was a very good cake decorator. She loved to bake and decorate."
She was known as the "cookie lady," famous for her Italian wedding cookies, ladylocks, pizzelles, biscottis, cannolis, nut rolls, love knots and almond amaretto cookies. She eventually branched out and began offering other traditional Italian foods, such as wedding soup and homemade spaghetti sauce and meatballs, all from old family recipes.
She won several awards for her cookies in the late 1990s, according to Mrs. Konitzky, including "Best Cookies in Western Pennsylvania" from the Western Pennsylvania Bakers Association and an Allegheny Food Service Protection Award for the cleanliness of her bakery operation.
"She was very strict," Mrs. Konitzky said. "Everyone had to wear white. The food service people said hers was the cleanest bakery they had ever seen."
In addition to her husband and daughter, Mrs. Vasselo is survived by two other daughters, Theresa Meldon of Robinson and Linda Weaver of Moon; two sisters, Josephine Long of McKees Rocks and Debra Merlina of Deer Lakes; a brother, Tony DiCicco of McKees Rocks; and seven grandchildren.
Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. today in St. Malachy Church in Kennedy.
Memorial contributions may be made in Mrs. Vasselo's name to the ALS Association, Western Pennsylvania Chapter, 416 Lincoln Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15209.
Tim Grant: email@example.com or 412-263-1591.