By Patrick Wall, Paul Lomax and Tom Liddy
MANHATTAN — Borough of Manhattan Community College student and Italian native Rita Morelli, who was murdered in her East Harlem apartment last week, was "hardworking" and "sweet," according to coworkers and customers at the Upper East Side restaurant where she waited tables for years.
"I knew her from the first day she started," Alvaro Yunda, a colleague at Caffe Buon Gusto, told DNAinfo Sunday. "She was a really hardworking girl. She was really responsible. She never missed a day of work. Even when she was sick she came."
Yunda said that Morelli, 36, had been working at the Italian eatery, at 236 E. 77th St., for 3-4 years, but was intensely focused on school.
"She said she didn't have any time for a boyfriend or a social life," he said. "She was working, school, home."
That's why it came as a shock after her death that she was dating a cook at the restaurant, where customers would frequently call ahead to see if she was working.
"I never saw any PDA [public display of affection] between these guys. But they did talk close, like a little mumble."
Morelli, who moved the U.S. five years ago for school, according to Italian newspaper Il Centro, was found repeatedly stabbed and choked to death in the East 120th Street apartment she shared with her boyfriend last Wednesday night.
Neighbors said that they saw her standing on the stoop of her building with a man that wasn't her boyfriend, who had been reportedly cleared as a suspect by police, but that she did not appear threatened.
One couple who lived nearby the restaurant, and ate there frequently, said that they have known Morelli since she began working there.
The victim, who they said was intensely private, would often sit down and talk to the husband about Italy, which was also his native country.
"She would talk about how gorgeous it is," he said. "There's no other place like it.
"She was so sweet. Smiling all the time. Very, very happy."
Morelli was a regular at the beauty salon next to her house, B & N Condition Beauty Salon.
“She was a pretty girl — very quiet and studious," said hairdresser Rachel Sanchez, 30. All of us knew her here. We used to make coffee for her.
"She was like a friend to me. I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a lie when I heard she'd been killed."
No arrests had been made as of Saturday.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story said Rita Morelli attended Hunter College. She attended Borough of Manhattan Community College.