"New York lost a piece of New York yesterday," Frank Pellegrino's longtime friend Bo Dietl tells PEOPLE

By Aurelie Corinthios
February 01, 2017 10:55 AM
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Frank Pellegrino, Sopranos star and co-owner of legendary New York restaurant Rao’s, has died, PEOPLE confirms. The star, who had been battling lung cancer since last year, was 72.

The native New Yorker is most famous for his role playing FBI Chief Frank Cubitoso on the HBO crime drama from 1999–2004. He also starred in multiple episodes of Law & Order, as well as several movies, including Cop Land, Mickey Blue Eyes and the 1990 Martin Scorsese hit Goodfellas.

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Pellegrino’s longtime friend Bo Dietl tells PEOPLE: “New York lost a piece of New York yesterday. Frankie was an icon, one of the most unique and remarkable people I’ve ever met in my life, with one of the biggest hearts. If anyone had a problem, they would go to Frankie and he would help them. He was one of the bravest men I ever met in my life.”

According to Dietl, Pellegrino passed away at 1:45 p.m. on Tuesday at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, surrounded by his family.

In addition to his career as an actor, Pellegrino was also a respected restaurateur and co-owned Rao’s, an iconic restaurant founded in 1896. The East Harlem institution is frequented by everyone from Scorsese to Jay Z and has also been featured in movies such as The Wolf of Wall Street.

“Part of the mystique of Rao’s is it’s a restaurant that’s 120 years old, but Frankie was the one who made it what it is,” said Dietl, a former NYPD detective and New York City mayoral candidate. “Frankie would sing with people! It was one of the most remarkable atmospheres.”

“It’s just one of the most unique restaurants in the world and that is because of Frankie Pellegrino,” he added. “People can’t lose sight of how wonderful of a person he was. If you had problems and you went to Rao’s, you’d walk in there and all your problems would go away. It was magical. He was the most magical guy I’ve ever met in my life.”

Pellegrino also published cook books with recipes from Rao’s cuisine and opened sister restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Throughout his cancer treatments, Pellegrino still came to Rao’s and sat at the bar with the adoring clientele, according to Dietl.

“Even on his darkest days, sometimes he’d go from chemo and show up at Rao’s,” said Dietl. “He was the pillar of happiness and life.”

“He just was such a wonderful human being,” he continued. “I feel empty without him.”