By: Maria C. Palmer and Ruthie Robbins
“The intangibles that enabled me to achieve my greatness
also contained the seeds to my destruction.”
--Joseph Costanzo, Jr.
Joseph Costanzo, Jr., a young postal worker with a daydream of opening a world-class Italian restaurant in a dying town, becomes a classic example of blind ambition, as he is at once the driving force behind his success and the cause of his own downfall.
“The Rocks” is no longer a destination for anyone but the locals when Joe Costanzo entertains thoughts of buying a struggling restaurant on a corner of the abandoned and dangerous streets of McKees Rocks in the 1980s. As Joe begins to make his dream come true, The Primadonna Restaurant becomes the main setting of the story as well as the hottest spot in town. With its delectable tastes, smells, camaraderie, behind-the-scenes antics, and celebrity appearances, the place begins to feel like home to readers, or at least a place they enjoy visiting through story. Much like the bar in the TV show Cheers, the restaurant is quite enough to carry not only the plot, but many subplots as well, enhanced by the descriptions of the food, drinks, and people within its walls.
As the restaurant gains national attention and exceeds all expectations, it is the unlikely setting of The Primadonna—The Rocks—that makes Joe’s accomplishments astounding. Joe makes it “chic” to venture to The Rocks for dinner, garnering the highest local and national awards possible.
While The Primadonna is still in its heyday, Joe decides to run for County Commissioner. Just as he had no restaurant experience yet made it all happen with hard work and sweat, Costanzo feels he can do the same in the political arena. He believes the marketing algorithm that he created for The Primadonna will easily cross over to the voters. He is proven wrong, but not before pouring the family’s entire savings into the campaign without his wife’s knowledge.
When Joe’s ill-advised decisions catch up with him and he is sentenced for tax evasion, the setting switches to the Morgantown Federal Correction Institute, where Joe spends five months in prison. We get an insider’s scoop in a place about which many people are naturally curious.
At the end of the book, when it seems that Joe has lost everything—the restaurant, his health, his magnificent home, his income, his ability to help others, and even his freedom for a time—he reflects warmly on what he has gained from the experience.
Costanzo is a complex character whose actions attract and repulse, whom we admire for his confidence and rebuke for his arrogance, whom we love for his generosity and despise for his egotism, whom we learn from in both his attention to detail and lack thereof. An array of minor characters keeps the story interesting, from Joe’s own father to the local cops to the IRS, but readers will be most intrigued by the way Joe jeopardizes his own happiness and success. Come and walk beside this anything-but-average Joe as he takes you through his bumpy journey on the Rocks.
I remember the first Saturday night that I wasn’t at the restaurant in seventeen years. I had planned to go in. I showered and dressed in white shirt and dress slacks, pulled together by my favorite tie, but when four p.m. arrived, I paced the house like a caged animal, deliberating every insignificant detail of my brand-new status. Should I leave now or wait until later? Would I just walk in or stand in line outside with the customers? Should I have dinner, sit at the bar, or just hang out? I’d turn the radio on for a distraction and then turn it back off because it annoyed me. In a mirror, I noticed the nervous perspiration under my arms and changed my shirt. Hours passed; more than once I grabbed something to eat in case I decided not to eat at the restaurant. My wife and daughters ran out of encouraging things to say, replacing their attempts with sympathetic looks. I needed to see the people I had grown so close to, and I knew they wanted to see me. I felt like the restaurant was where I belonged, but I just couldn’t go there. I couldn’t bear it. That night was the lowest point, the point from which I was forced to reluctantly adapt to my new circumstances.
Unable to sleep, I lay awake until the sun rose, rehashing my decisions and wondering, How the hell did I get here?
* * * * *
“Joe! Joe!” called Miss Lavonne from her window. She had been watching out so she could offer me a glass of cold water.
“You’re the best, Miss Lavonne.” I gulped down half the glass in three seconds. “That really helps.” I gulped the rest and repeated, “That really helps.”
A few blocks away, I found a sign taped onto the mailbox next to Miss Marguerite’s front door: “JOE—KNOCK LOUD.” I knocked, and Marguerite scuttled to the door holding banana bread wrapped in foil.
“Hi, Miss Marguerite. That sign on the door isn’t for me, is it?”
“Yes, it is, Joe,” she assured, handing me the still-warm loaf. “That’s for your family, Joe. It’s too hot to cook, I know, but I gotta do somethin’ with my days.”
“Awww, Miss Marguerite. That’s so kind. So kind.”
Around the corner, I’d have to gently break free from Mr. Brezinski, who would talk to me all day about WWII if I let him.
I filled my pockets each day with Double Bubble and doled out pieces to any of the kids who came up to me. I noted the simple things that would make someone’s day a little better, but it wasn’t totally unselfish; I also enjoyed being known and liked wherever I went.
There were three basketball courts in the project that were full if the weather was even half decent. As I walked near the court filled with pre-teen boys one summer morning, several of the boys stopped and waved with their loud, sing-songy, “HI, Joe!” They looked like they were having a quick huddle about whether to stop the game to score some bubble gum, but I put down my sack of mail and hustled to them instead.
“Any three against me!” I shouted as I grabbed the ball.
The boys quickly identified their three best players, and the game was on. I was crushing them. When the score was twelve to four, I called timeout and reminded everyone that I had to get back to work. The boys were surprised at my skill.
“Five more minutes,” they pleaded.
“Tomorrow,” I promised, “I’ll play five of you at once. A whole team against me.” I started to walk away but then remembered and turned back to give each a piece of gum. “I almost forgot,” I told them.
“We almost forgot, too,” said a boy named Michael.
As I walked from mailbox to mailbox, I would daydream about winning a huge lottery and sharing some of the money with my acquaintances from the projects. When I saw a HELP WANTED sign in a window or a job posting in the Want Ads section of the newspaper, I thought about whether the job might be good for one of my unemployed postal customers. I embraced the people on my route as part of my life, and they returned the warmth.
My shift ended at three p.m., and I made it a point to hurry home each day. When Reading Rainbow came on TV, little Maria knew it was time for Daddy to come home and would be looking out the window.
Donna opened the door and gave me a kiss while Maria instantly wrapped her arms around my leg, holding tight. “Daddy. I missed you.”
I picked Maria up and give her a big hug, followed a piggy-back ride around the house. “Where to, my princess?” I asked.
Maria shouted, “To the castle!”
This was our routine. Maria delighted in coming up with different destinations, and I’d always feign shock and come up with an obstacle. Today it was, “The castle? What about the dragon?!” Then we’d run around the house laughing.
“Everything okay today, Joe?” asked Donna.
“Same as every other day, Love,” I replied.
Donna constantly worried about my safety because a disproportionate number of the city’s crimes came from the housing projects where I delivered the mail. “Do you realize that you’re the only uniformed person walking around that project without a gun?” she asked.
I told her, “I carry the welfare checks; no one is messing with me.”
Not only was I not at all apprehensive about working in a neighborhood known for drugs and gun violence, but the opportunity to befriend my postal customers was the saving grace of the job. People fascinated me, and I was able to build relationships quickly, simply by taking a genuine interest in each person I met. This neighborhood was more appealing to me than an upper-class section of town; I was able to connect with people whose unspoken boundaries (or whose perceptions of mine) would likely have prevented us from ever getting to know each other. It was gratifying to me that I was accepted, and I aimed to endear myself to everyone on the route.
What did bother me, however, was the mundane nature of the job, especially in inclement weather when there were no people around. Some people might have been satisfied with a secure middle-class income and predictable work schedule. All I had to do was to deliver the mail responsibly, which I did. Job security and benefits were ideal. I had no work to bring home evenings or weekends and no myriad of worries like my father had running the Mardi Gras Lounge in Shadyside.
“How’s the sewing going, Donna? Did you get any further?”
“I finished the body, but I wasn’t sure what to do with the face. Or the clothing.”
“Can you finish by tonight?”
“I’ll have to, won’t I? Joe, I just don’t understand why you try so hard to promote the post office. It’s not like they don’t have any business.”
“But they miss so many opportunities, Donna.”
“It’s not your problem, Joe. You’re a mail carrier, not the Postmaster General. Let him worry about it.”
The “problem” with the job was not the job, but my own tendency to think big. Really big. I came to the postal field with the attitude that I was not only going to do my job well, but I would also somehow revolutionize the U.S. Postal Service. From the first day on the job, I was brimming with marketing ideas that would transform the USPS into more of a brand and less of a service.
That night, Maria woke up from a bad dream and came running into our room to find her pregnant mom hovering over an outdated sewing machine while I dictated directions. “Donna, make him friendly-looking with big eyes and a smiley mouth.”
Maria looked down and saw what looked like a deflated Sparky, the fire-hydrant-turned-dog, that stood in the middle of our front yard. When we moved into our house, I had turned the fire plug eyesore into the neighborhood conversation piece with a little ingenuity and paint. “Can I hold him?” Maria asked.
Before Donna could answer, I asserted, “No, you can’t touch him. He’s for work.” Then I softened and hugged Maria tightly. “Let me guess. You can’t sleep again? Are those monsters back?”
“Yes. They are up in the attic.”
“Let’s go up, honey. I’m going to show you that there are no monsters.”
“Dad, there are monsters. We can’t go up there.”
I got a flashlight from the kitchen. Holding it in my left hand, I scooped Maria up with my right arm and yelled down to Donna, “He needs to be wearing a uniform.”
“Alright, alright. I’m still working on his face,” she shouted back.
I did the same thing I had done several times before. With Maria in my arms, I illuminated every corner of the attic, shining the light high and low to show her that there were no monsters. I held her tenderly and felt like I was holding the greatest treasure in the world.
On Thursday (my normal day off), I replaced my usual postal uniform with a suit and tie. Emphasizing and re-emphasizing key words, I was practicing a speech while Donna was half-listening over the sizzle of eggs and bacon. Then I was off to the downtown headquarters, carrying an easel and what looked like a large costume. I was about to present Zippy, the first mascot of the United States Postal Service.
I shut the door, but then ran back in and said, “Give me a kiss for good luck, girls.” They sweetly obliged.
Donna prayed that today would be different. She had been there before and had seen me get so excited about an idea, only to be shot down.
“I’ll see you after the meeting for dinner at Fusco’s.”
Fusco’s was a local Italian restaurant that we frequented. It was in the middle of McKees Rocks, which had by this time become a town that was struggling to keep afloat (as was the restaurant). We loved coming to Fusco’s because every time we came, not only was the food good, but it was pretty much a private dining experience--the perfect place to bring kids. Chef Nick Fusco always came to the table, and we shot the bull about life, family, and how business was going.
Nick knew that I had grown up in the bar business, so we had that bond, although I understood less about it than he thought I did. A combination of societal norms and the type of business my father ran kept us kids distant, even for those times. In truth, many fathers of bygone days had an air of mystery. If you ask men of a certain age what they know about their fathers, they often reach an impasse. I was raised in the era when the father went away to work, spoke little or not at all about his job, and spent even less time cultivating a true heartfelt relationship with his children. Add to that, lounge hours were the hours when most families would be spending time together. My father slept during the day and went to work soon after we came home from school. There was also a firm but unspoken agreement among adults that children should not see or hear anything that would contribute to their “growing up too fast.” My father’s lounge, with its scantily clad dancers and drinks aplenty, was off limits to his family. Even as we kids left our teens, my father was probably not comfortable sharing his secrets of success in a business whose nature conflicted with our somewhat sheltered Catholic upbringing.
Donna and Maria got to Fusco’s first, anxiously awaiting my arrival. I guess I had noticeably less pep in my step, even to Maria. Donna knew right away that the meeting must not have had the outcome we had hoped for.
“Daddy, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, sweetie. I brought you a present.” Behind my back, I had Zippy.
“Can I keep him?”
“Yes, absolutely. I won’t be needing him anytime soon.”
“Joe, what happened?” asked Donna, concerned,
“I gave it my best. I talked at them, though. Nobody showed any real interest. They said there were already people working on the zip code campaign on a national level.”
Donna hugged me as we sat down to enjoy some family-style pasta that, like always, didn’t disappoint. Some people turn to alcohol to soothe their nerves; I turned to food.
As always, Nick came over to say hello, and Maria held up her new stuffed animal.
“Wow, he has a uniform on just like your dad. Aren’t you lucky?”
I interjected, “Yeah, at least someone likes Zippy.”
“Rough day at work again, Joe?” Nick asked.
“It’s beginning to become more the norm lately. I have so many ideas that would help the post office, but they don’t appreciate them. I can’t get through to anyone.”
“Joe, that’s not exactly true,” Donna chimed in. “They love your ideas.”
“Even if that’s true, it’s obviously not getting me anywhere.”
“Joe, I have just the thing that might pick up your spirits,” said Nick. “Come on back with me; I want to show you the new oven I got.” I didn’t thinks seeing Nick’s new oven would lift my spirits, but I politely accommodated.
“I’d love to see it, Nick.” I got up and left the girls at the table.
As we walked into the kitchen, Nick’s demeanor changed. “Joe, I have some news of my own. I’m moving to Myrtle Beach.”
“Wow, that’s big news! Congrats, Nick. Who’s going to run this place?”
“I don’t know . . . maybe you?”
I chuckled. “Listen, I have a good thing at the post office. I really can’t complain. I just get these big ideas sometimes, and the post office is such a huge bureaucracy that I can’t get them to the right people.”
“Joe, I know you aren’t happy there. I needed to put this out there. Think about it. If you are interested, please let me know.”
With Nick Fusco’s suggestion that I buy his place, I rejoined my family, but all that was on my mind was that the space around us could be the setting of my reimagined future. A future where I would not have to answer to anyone else. A future where I could put my marketing degree to work. A future where I could put all my gusto into something of my own. A future where I could own a restaurant and make people happy with the kind of food that made me happy.
Food is central in Italian culture. My non-Italian friends used to joke around that when they came to my family's home, they ate more on the fly than they did at holidays with their families. My mom always had something that she could whip up on a moment's notice, and I was the happy recipient of a great cook. Luckily, because of how active I was, it never showed. I was always slender and athletic, although I could eat with the best of them. In addition, I enjoyed the social aspect of sharing a meal. Perhaps this was why the idea of owning a restaurant seemed so perfect—like Cinderella finding the magic slipper. I was instantaneously determined to make this happen. Now all I had to do was to convince my wife and the rest of the family, which wouldn’t be easy.
On the drive home, I mustered up enough courage to approach Donna.
“So, Don, ever dream that there is something else for us?”
Donna looked confused. Where I was always the dreamer, my wife stood ready to give a dose of reality. She loved me, no doubt, but she was always looking out for our future and the stability of the family.
“What do you think about owning a restaurant? Fusco told me his is for sale.”
“A restaurant? Joe, right now you are making a stable income at the post office, and we have a mortgage, a four-year-old child, and a baby on the way. Are you crazy?”
Donna knew first-hand how hard things were. She gave up her well-paying airline job to raise a family, and she was the one who budgeted our income and paid the bills. In addition, she wasn’t generally a risk-taker.
I decided it was best to do what I do the worst—shut my mouth. There would be another time for this, but it had to come soon. Fusco’s place was up and running, ready to step right in. What if someone else wanted to run a business from that building? It didn’t have to be a restaurant. Convincing Donna would be an uphill battle, but the opportunity wouldn’t be open forever.
That Sunday, like most other Sundays, we headed over to my parents’ house for a traditional Sunday pasta dinner. This seemed like a good time to bring up buying the restaurant. I thought that perhaps “strength in numbers” could help my cause. After all, my father must have had the same dream that I did before he opened The Mardi Gras. He was in the business, and my family would see the possibilities more clearly than Donna had.
As we all sat down to dinner, I thought it would be the perfect time to bring up owning a restaurant. I had already talked to my mother on the sly, but this had to be discussed in the open. In the tradition of most Italian families, my father would be the person whose approval was most important.
I did my best to appear confident and upbeat. “Hey, I’m giving some serious thought to buying a restaurant that’s for sale in the Rocks. It has a lot of potential.”
My father sat up straighter and widened his eyes. He remained silent at first, but I could tell by his fixed stare and set jaw that he strongly disapproved.
“A restaurant?” questioned my sister Diane. “You don’t even cook.”
“I would hire a chef. I think an upscale Italian restaurant would be welcome on that side of town,” I replied, trying to sound nonchalant while my heart pounded to the tense vibe in the room.
“The Rocks? Who do you have in mind for clientele—the meth dealers or the bookies?” Diane laughed, pleased with her own attempt at a joke.
From across the table, family members took turns taking jabs at me.
“Are you crazy?”
“You have a young child and a baby on the way.”
“You need to get your head out of the clouds.”
“In McKees Rocks, of all places? Hahaha . . .”
When my father finally spoke, the rest of the room fell silent. He looked right at me as he spoke slowly and firmly, index finger raised in warning. “I cannot support you on this crazy idea. I will not lend you one dime, and when it all fails, which it will, I will not bail you out. I will sit back and watch it happen. I will never let your kids starve, but I will let you lose your house on principle.”
No one was prepared for the gravity of my father’s response. We quickly finished our meal, mostly in silence, except for the women unsuccessfully attempting small talk to help smooth over the awkward quiet. Amid everyone’s disbelief, however, the fire inside of me just kept on burning stronger.
When I had told my mother about the restaurant earlier in the week, she mentioned a small inheritance from her deceased father that she would give me to help build the bar. I didn’t know about this money and didn’t ask for anything, but that’s the kind of woman my mother was. Her thoughts immediately turned to ways she could help her family. My father somehow got word of her intentions to help me and made sure I never saw a cent of the money. I understood enough to pretend I forgot all about it.
The Zippy story was just one example of how I had no voice in the United States Postal own place, and being my own boss was too appealing. I just had to do it, and my family’s harsh words just further fueled the fire. My place was going to be better than my father’s. Yes, there would be high-class martinis, but there would also be exceptional food, and lots of it.
Donna began to understand. She saw that there was little chance of moving up in the post office and knew that I needed a career where I could put my creativity to work. Donna had many talents of her own that could be directed toward a restaurant. A stellar flight attendant, Donna could train others in the art of serving. She also knew how to keep her cool no matter what the situation, a valued skill in working with the public. Over the next few weeks, Donna warmed up to the idea. I called Nick Fusco.
“Nick, this is Joe Costanzo.”
“Hey Joe, how ya doing? Need a reservation?”
“Yes! I’m coming down tonight for a celebration.”
“Yeah? I heard about the baby. Congratulations!”
“Yes, thanks. Kelly Costanzo was born on May 21st, and she’s doing great. We’re all doing great. However, tonight we’re celebrating something else.”
“I’m buying your place, Nick.”
We met with Nick a few times over the next many weeks before working out an agreement. Donna and I had a lot to consider. To buy the restaurant, we’d have to refinance our house, which had been paid off. I didn’t want to open an upscale restaurant without a bar, so I’d have to dip into my USPS independent retirement. In my thirteen years at the post office, I put fifteen thousand dollars into the account—exactly the amount I needed to install a bar.
We signed the papers in August of 1985 but knew it would take months to transfer the liquor license. During this time, I kept my job at the post office. We now had a mortgage on our home again and a rent payment for the business. I went to the restaurant most days after my postal shift, taking care of the many details needing to be addressed before we opened—from choosing a menu to painting the walls and everything in between. Nothing was as enjoyable as it could have been because I could only work on the business after work, Donna could have used my help with the girls, and we both needed sleep, desperately.
In addition to renovations, there were so many other details to take care of. We needed a name. The obvious default name “Costanzo’s” was already taken by a place downtown. Wanting to project a refined image in a not-so-refined part of town, I decided to name the place after the classiest person I knew—my wife. I did some research and found that the name Primadonna in Italian meant “first lady.” No other name could have been a more perfect fit. I installed a solid oak front door with a giant P on it, complemented by a new awning to give the entrance a classy look.
Donna oversaw our finances, directing every dollar during this time. Without her, this transition would not have worked. Without me, however, we would not have taken things to the next level. There was nothing in my mind that made me think the new business venture might fail. When you are thirty-two years old, you take chances and don’t mull over possible consequences. My confidence was unwavering.
I remember a trip to the supermarket where Donna cautioned me not to pick up anything “extra.” On the drive home, she said, “Joe, if they raise the rent on the restaurant by one dollar, we’ll go bankrupt.”
“You’re worried that they will raise our rent?” I asked.
“Yeah, I am.”
“Don’t worry, Love. Within a year, we’ll own the building.” I was that sure of myself.