Robert Donald Musante, who helped lead one of the North Bay's largest title companies and later owned a popular Fourth Street Italian eatery, died Tuesday at his Santa Rosa home. He was 68.

The cause is unknown but he was scheduled for heart surgery the following day, said his niece Leslie Curry of Santa Rosa.

Musante was the proprietor since 1999 of Caffe Portofino, a quarter-century Fourth Street institution that he bought in retirement as a way to keep busy.

He was not an owner who hovered, Curry said, preferring to let professionals handle the day-to-day business, though he liked to sip a drink at the bar.

"He tried to let the restaurant run as it should run and not stick his fingers in the pie," she said.

Musante was born May 22, 1944, in San Francisco to William and Avis Musante. His father was an insurance salesman and his mother a homemaker.

His family moved to Corte Madera when he was a teenager. He had a mischievous spirit, once loading the fireplace with blank bullets. When his father lighted the fire, they exploded and blew flaming firewood into the room.

Having survived that and other such events, he graduated from Redwood High School. Joining the Army he served as a military policeman at the Presidio of San Francisco.

Upon leaving the Army in 1969, Musante sold furniture and cars before settling into what became a long and successful career in the title business.

In the mid-1970's, after a few years at Northern Counties Title Company in San Francisco, Musante, who by then had moved to Petaluma (he moved to Santa Rosa in 1981), joined First American Title Co.'s Santa Rosa office.

There he helped female co-workers climb a corporate ladder that was still only just opening to them.

"He put women in higher management positions before other people did," Curry said. "He didn't see a difference between a man and woman doing that same job."

In 23 years with First American Title, Musante rose to become Vice President and County Manager for Sonoma and San Mateo counties. The company is the North Bay's third largest title company.

Though he was frequently offered positions elsewhere in the company, Musante refused them so he could be near his family.

He was known as warm-hearted man who could be depended on. He had a black labrador named Jody for whom he brought vanilla and peanut butter canine ice cream every Sunday. But he also was known as a man with "a bark," said Curry.

"He was incredibly sarcastic," she said. "And once he found something he could tease you about, he did not let up. But always in fun. He definitely liked a good joke."

Twice married and divorced, Musante's survivors include his daughters Kristin Musante of Santa Rosa and Nicole Armato of Petaluma, and his sons Bryce Musante and Jayson Musante of South Lake Tahoe.

A memorial service is set for 10:30 a.m. Monday, at Daniels Chapel of the Roses, 1225 Sonoma Avenue, Santa Rosa.