“He was working days; I was working nights,” the 37-year-old recalls. “I would get off work and drive to Little Italy [where he lived] to see him. He’d have a bottle of wine waiting for me, cheese and crackers and grapes. Then he’d bring out the guitar. I’d be like, ‘Hey, do you know “Poetry Man”?’ We’d pull up the lyrics on the computer, and I’d sing while he played guitar.” Mornings were just as romantic. “He’d go to Presti’s and get me a big, fat cappuccino, and we’d eat pizza for breakfast.”
It’s easy to be jealous of her: blond, beautiful, married to a tall-dark-and-handsome guy who keeps his woman well-fed. But Denise’s bliss is much deserved: In June 2005, her fiancé, MetroHealth Medical Center finance director Mike Irey, was killed in a bicycling accident. During the year that followed, she slowly recovered from the traumatic loss but doubted she’d ever be able to love again. She starts to cry when she talks about the experience.
“Tony has taken on a lot, with a lot of my issues, with everything that’s happened,” she says through her tears. “And he still loves me, no matter what. He just thinks everything I do is so special. I feel like Wonder Woman when I’m around him, like anything is possible.”
Still, the introduction was the sort of thing any well-mannered person would do in the workplace. Although time and counseling had helped Denise accept Mike’s death and start moving on with her life — she was going out with friends, even laughing again — she thought it was way too soon for a romantic relationship.
Tony thought Denise was “incredibly beautiful” and kind, with a “heart bigger than the state of Ohio.” But he wasn’t looking for a relationship, either. The Boston native, then 42, had just moved to Cleveland from San Francisco after an aborted stint in law school to revive his 20-year broadcast-journalism career. And he was still recovering from the 2002 breakup of his first marriage, an experience he describes as “devastating.”
“I failed,” he admits. “I just didn’t think I would be lucky enough to find love again. And all the things I thought went into a strong marriage, I just didn’t think I brought them to the table at that time.”
Nevertheless, a friendship developed. One time, Tony offered to fill in for Denise on the morning shift so she wouldn’t have to change evening plans for her previous day off. Later, they went to a Christmas party together. According to Denise, she invited Tony to come with her to a friend’s bash so the new guy at work could meet some people. “He seemed very nice — Tony is very gregarious, very fun-loving,” she explains. Tony claimshe askedher out. “I have more game than that!” he insists.
They agree their first official date was a month later, when they went to dinner at La Dolce Vita in Little Italy. Denise admits it was hard to start dating again, even though she knew Mike would have approved. That first date, however, went better than either Tony or Denise expected.
“It was just a genuine connection,” Tony recalls. “We sat there and talked about our pasts. It didn’t feel like first-date fluff.”
“We just talked and talked —you know how you meet somebody and it feels like you’ve known them for a long time?” Denise says. “After that first date, we were together every single day.”
Tony asked Denise to marry him in June, while they were at a cousin’s graduation party at her uncle’s house in the Poconos. Her aunt brought up the subject of a long-term relationship in the backyard with a playful, “Hey, what’s going on with you guys?” Tony responded by dropping to one knee in the pool and “proposing” underwater to Denise, who was standing nearby. He then got out and asked her again in front of the whole family.
“It was no longer a priority what city I lived in, it was no longer a priority what job I was doing,” Tony says. “That was the first time in my life that I just felt like the most important thing, ever, is that we’re together.”
Both Tony and Denise were stunned by how quickly their relationship progressed. “It felt like some kind of divine intervention,” she divulges. Tony and Denise married six months later, on Jan. 5, 2008.
“We were going to get married the following June,” she says. “But because of my experience with Mike, I didn’t want to wait. If there’s something that I want to do, I want to do it right then and there, as quickly as possible. You’re just not guaranteed a tomorrow.”
“They shared my tears and listened even when I’m sure they got tired of listening,” she says. “I wanted them to have some fun with me and celebrate a new chapter in my life.”
To accomplish those goals, Denise kept things relatively simple. She gave her sole attendant, her sister Michele, carte blanche to select her own dress — a strapless, red satin gown purchased at David’s Bridal in North Olmsted. And the bride let her florist, Al Wilhelmy Flowers in Kamm’s Corners, take over the job of picking out the flowers. Her only requests — a bridal bouquet of red roses and candles at the end of each pew — inspired Wilhelmy to create all-white arrangements of Casablanca lilies, hydrangea and roses to flank the altar for the ceremony at Rocky River United Methodist Church.
Wilhelmy used clusters of potted fichus trees painted white, sprinkled with crystals and uplit with red spotlights to dress up the Irish Heritage Center in Avon Lake. The 20 tables were covered with white tablecloths, crisscrossed with red satin runners and punctuated with one of two centerpieces: 27-inch pilsener vases filled with white Casablanca lilies, hydrangea, lisianthus and white sparkly sticks or 8-inch-square glass containers filled with mounds of red roses. The approximately 150 guests dined on a buffet featuring carved top round, chicken Parmesan and rigatoni with meatballs prepared by Ahern Catering. The North Olmsted company also provided the spread for a rehearsal dinner for 40 close friends and relatives — an event Denise and Tony hosted in their suburban West Side condominium.
“We had a lot of people coming in from all over the country, and I didn’t know when they were going to have another opportunity to be in our home,” Denise explains. The couple also delayed their departure for a weeklong Aruba honeymoon until the following Monday so out-of-towners could drop by the house on Sunday.
Denise admits her one great extravagance was hiring the 10-piece Tony Camerato Band to play for the entire six-hour reception. “Tony and I are big music lovers,” she explains. Her most surprising find was the wedding dress she selected: a strapless, white satin gown featuring a tiered split back and beaded metallic embroidery on the A-line skirt and semicathedral train that she bought on sale at David’s Bridal’s North Olmsted store.
“I thought I would get something that was slim-fitting — I really didn’t want to look like I was going to the prom,” Denise says. “I ended up with one of the biggest skirts [the store] had! I put it on, and I just felt like a fairy-tale princess.”
It was the perfect dress for Denise’s happy ending.
She Said It First Denise told Tony she loved him a month after their first date at a birthday bowling party for a co-worker at the Corner Alley in downtown Cleveland. “I felt like we were the only two people on the planet,” Tony says of the moment. “I already knew I felt like that about her.”
She (Almost) Got It at Wal-Mart Denise was so thrilled by Tony’s impromptu proposal that she wanted to go to Wal-Mart — the only store near her uncle’s home in the Poconos that was open at the time — and get an engagement ring. Tony convinced her to wait until the following day, when they went to a jeweler and picked out a round diamond surrounded by a square of smaller round diamonds.
Something Old Denise wore her late paternal grandfather’s wedding band on the ring finger of her right hand along with her engagement ring.
Pit Stop Denise and Tony returned to their home between the wedding and reception to pose for pictures with relatives. Other activities included performing their own version of Elton John’s “Your Song” and singing a Russian drinking song — a nod to Denise’s Russian heritage.
Contributions from Co-workers Denise Dufala, WOIO 6 and 11 p.m. co-anchor, sang “Our Father” during Denise and Tony’s wedding ceremony. Their wedding cake was made by Sharon Marschall, wife of Jack Marschall, with whom Denise worked during a brief stint co-anchoring WOIO/WUAB’s morning show. “I got to taste her cakes because she brought them to our newsroom,” Denise says, “so I knew how good they were.”