ANNA MARIA ISLAND -- For a heroic act in the line of duty, Deputy First Class Gary Sellitto was named October's Officer of the Month by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.
"What did you do?" Laurie Sellitto asked her husband of 40 years, who had not mentioned anything of a heroic nature to her before he got the honor.
"Oh, it was just that fire thing," Gary Sellitto replied, referring to the kitchen fire at 8:15 a.m. Sept. 30 at the Rod and Reel Pier Restaurant, 875 N. Shore Dr., Anna Maria, when Sellitto, one of seven contracted sheriff's office employees who comprise the Anna Maria police force, helped evacuate roughly 15 customers, about a half-dozen wait staff and cooks and an unknown number of fishermen on the pier.
Later, Gary and Laurie Sellitto's son, Sheriff's Office Detective First Class Todd Sellitto, told his mother Gary Sellitto went back into the smoky restaurant to shut down the electricity at the circuit breakers in the downstairs kitchen and close the propane gas shut-off after everyone had been removed from the restaurant and pier.
"Mom, he went back in after everyone was gone and he could have been blown to bits," Todd Sellitto told his mother.
Sheriff's office officials said Gary Sellitto's prompt actions showed com
posure and self-sacrifice. Others say the deputy may have saved lives since the cooks were so busy making breakfast they didn't immediately process smoke was coming from the ceiling.
"I've never been called a hero before," Gary Sellitto said Friday. "All I was doing was my job. But maybe that is a hero. I will say people on the island are like family to me."
Sellitto was at the restaurant at 7:30 a.m. Sept. 30, doing what he usually does, chatting with fishermen, tourists and business owners on his beat.
A restaurant server came up to him and said: "Come to the downstairs kitchen. I smell smoke," Gary Sellitto said.
"I said to the cooks, 'Look, we have smoke, shut down your stoves. Let's get out of the kitchen,' " Sellitto said. "I could see a little flame, but it was between the walls."
After radioing the West Manatee Fire Rescue District station on the island about the fire, Sellitto quickly evacuated the kitchen staff, the bar area and the breakfast diners.
Todd Sellitto said his father broke the news to the diners in a calm manner.
"He probably said: 'Ladies and gentlemen gather your things,' " Todd Sellitto said.
Later, when she questioned her husband about the fire, Laurie Sellitto learned some diners didn't want to leave their food.
"My husband allowed the diners to bring their plates of food with them while evacuating," Laurie Sellitto said.
Little touches like that have caused islanders to cherish Gary Sellitto during his 22 years at the island substation, Todd Sellitto said.
"Dad is really laid back," Todd Sellitto said. "He's never hot-headed. He never gets worked up. He does the job and does it well. He believes he doesn't have to come across as aggressive when he does his job. He's why I went into law enforcement. I try to be like him. People often thank him after he arrests them. That's how he got his nickname on the island."Gary Sellitto is known in Anna Maria as "Officer Friendly," his son said.
"I am friendly with people and compassionate," Gary Sellitto said. "Being on an island, you have to be that way. You've got to understand, they're on vacation. So, I try to be a little cooperative. On Anna Maria, we do law enforcement, but we also do public relations."
'Officer Friendly' as a cook
As a young man growing up in Hartford, Conn., Sellitto decided to be a chef and attended the cooking school, The Culinary Institute of America, he said.
"I graduated with a hotel and management degree, but I decided to get out of it because I needed security, being a newly married man," Sellitto said.
Although he passed up an offer to be a chef at the Contemporary Hotel at Disney World, he cooks at home, whipping up chicken marsala, stir fry, beef tenderloin tips, sugar and Christmas cookies from scratch and the Sellitto family secret Italian spaghetti sauce, which takes several days to cook properly.
"Our grandkids, Logan, 12, Garren, 10 and Morgan, 4, come out of the woodwork for his spaghetti and stir fry," Laurie Sellitto said of her husband. "He's Italian and his family cooked spaghetti sauce for a couple of days. I used to cook but one day I made a roast and he came into my kitchen and stuck his thumb into it and said, 'It's done.' I said, 'OK. This is your new job for life.' So, he does most of the cooking when he's not working."
Restaurant may reopen soon
Almost every day since the fire, Gary Sellitto has visited the closed Rod and Reel Pier Restaurant to see how reconstruction is going.
He said Friday the repairs and renovations are progressing.
"They are looking at the middle of December or maybe the first of January," Gary Sellitto said of a possible reopening date. "They figure, if they are going to take care of it, might as well put a new floor in, a new roof on, new walls up, new counter tops, new windows, do a general overhaul of the place. It's kind of off-season now. They want it done right."
Restaurant manager Dave Cochran confirmed Sellitto's perceptions.
"We are out of the demolition phase and into the reconstruction phase," Cochran said. Cochran also said "November is out."
Richard Dymond, crime reporter can be reached at 941-745-7072 or via Twitter @ RichardDymond.