The picture is from 2001. In it, Nicolo Vitale sports a white dress shirt with captain's epaulets, a dark tie and an enormous smile. His right hand holds the plane above his right eyebrow, tossing a salute for the camera. He looks jubilant.

"That was his graduation from the training course to receive his 100-ton captain's license," said Angela Sanfilippo. "That I think that was the happiest day of his life."

Sanfilippo and her husband John knew Vitale for all of his 49 years. When John and Angela married in July 1970, they lived on the first floor of a two-family on Foster Street. Joseph and Maria Vitale and family lived upstairs. 

"We would watch him when they needed someone," Angela Sanfilippo said. "If it was hot, we would sit him in a chair and fan him with a fan and he would just giggle."

On Monday, Vitale died after going overboard from the Miss Sandy as the vessel returned from fishing for haddock with a handful of Gloucester day boats. About a mile outside the breakwater, Capt. Vince Taormina turned from the wheel and the deck was empty. Vitale was gone. 

The Coast Guard scrambled two boats and a helicopter to search. Other day boats — including the Santo Pio, the Angela + Rose, the Razzo and the Amanda and Andy — joined the Miss Sandy and the Coast Guard in the search.

"We're so grateful for everybody that helped," said Joe Orlando, who owns and operates the Santo Pio. "We're especially grateful to the Coast Guard for how quickly they came and for everything that they did."

Orlando was the captain that located Vitale's body floating facedown and unresponsive in the water on Monday. Vitale later was pronounced dead at Addison Gilbert Hospital.

"He was the type of guy who would do anything for you," Orlando said. "He was a jewel."

By all accounts, Vitale lived life to the fullest and on his own terms. He fished on boats throughout the harbor, including the Angela + Rose, which is owned and captained by his first cousin, Paul Vitale.

"He fished with me and he fished with my father," Paul Vitale said. "He had a very big heart. He loved his family. That was the stuff that mattered to him."

Nicolo Vitale's father died about two years ago and his mother and his sister Angela returned to Sicily to help take care of Maria's aging parents.

"He would go back a couple times a year to visit them," Angela Sanfilippo said. "He'd just decide he was going and go down and buy a ticket and go. That's how he did everything."

Nicolo Vitale was a familiar face at the St. Peter's Club and at Sebastian's Pizza on Washington Street, where he was known to jump behind the counter or into the kitchen if another pair of hands was needed.

"He was the kindest, the most lovable person," said Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken said. "He'd be giggling and then turn his head to the side a little and give you his shy look. You couldn't ever really stay mad at him."  

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT

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