Friday, June 23, 2023

On The Rocks A Delicious Memoir

 Can a former postman make it as a top restauranteur? If you're Joseph Constanzo Junior , the answer is a a resounding YES! This culinary force fo nature took over an average Italian restaurant and turned it into one of Pitssburgh's premier dining spots.His recipe for that? Grit and personailty.

His story is in a new book On The Rocks (Koehler Books 2023) written in his voice by his eldest daughter Maria Costanzo Palmer and Ruthie Robbins, Ms Constanzo Palmer's English teacher and good friend. This is a story of personality and good food. It starts with Joe being offered Fusco's an Italian restaurant and favorite place of hos and his  wife Donna. Joe, ,disilluisioned  with his job at the USPS jumps on the chance to own an Italian restaurant and bar, despite it being in one of the worst areas of Puttsburgh, a gritty,  scary area known as McKee's Rocks (hence the book's title). The odds were against him. who would want to visit an eatery in on fo the worst parts of the Pittsburgh area? Thanks to his warm personality and amazing food - especially his fried zucchini - The Prima donna - named after Donna became the place to go. Celebrities from both the sports and movie world ate there, sampling his array of tasty pastas and meat dishes. Even Frank Sinatra ordered from him.  Joe was also ambitious , running and unfortunately losing the Allegheny County commissioner's position.He also had a rasio show, interviewing other  local restaurant ownersThere is a down side to this  - as Joe is investigated for tax fraud and does time in a West Virginia federal penitentiary , This means the end of the Prima Donna.It has to be sold and unfortunately the new owners jsut don't have the magic Joe was blessed with. after being released there is a stab at another eatery the Cafe Costanzo but it didn't do as well. 

I loved this book. Joe remnds me of many of the many affable men I've met over the years. He has a great heart ,a constantly giving one . Even was he was a mailman , he had time to play basketball with the inner city kids on hos route. He was a good friend and mentor to his restaurant staff and a sympathetic ear and companion to his prison mates. This is a rare kind of person who always sees the good in any situation, even in jail. I admire that attitude. Joe had also an admirable drive. One has to be in awe of how he pushed the locally famous Mike Kalina to give the Prima Donna a five fork rating along with doggedly pursuing the critic to come in and try the food. That actually was the start of a deep friendship, endling tragically when Mr. Kalina took his life in the early Nineties. The incindent was also in the book,  as Joe told of him selling space in Mr. Kalina's cookbook. What has to follow On The Rocks is a Prima Donna cookbook. Home chefs like myself want to make that fried zucchini (this book made me crave it and pasta) along with his famed salad dressing which he sold locally. There is a need for a cookbook featuring good old fashioned  Italian cooking and I think the Costanzo family should consider this.

On The Rocks  tells of Joe Costanzo Jr's dream coming true. He turned a little Italian restaurant into one of western Pennsylvania award winning power houses. It's a fascinating story. 

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