On the Rocks: The Primadonna Story

Screenplay Type
Logline or Premise
On the Rocks chronicles the real-life journey of restaurateur Joseph Costanzo Jr., from his rise to success as the owner of the highly acclaimed Primadonna Restaurant, radio host, columnist, and aspiring politician to his sharp fall ending with a stint in federal prison.
First 10 Pages

Have you ever thought about what story you might tell about yourself if you had the chance? Would it ring true to those who knew you well? Or would you maybe polish it to shine like a brand new BMW, making yourself seem glossier or larger than you really were? Or would you choose to tell the whole truth with all its flaws amid the moments of greatness?

Well, I’m Joseph Costanzo, Jr., and that’s what I’ve been thinking about because I’ve got a great story to tell you. I’ll tell you most of it; the rest involves other people who might not appreciate their deeds being made public or whose memories I don’t want to tarnish. I’ll do my best to bridge those little gaps, but the main events involve me or my family. I can tell you all about those.

If the title of this book, On the Rocks, made you think the story has something to do with drinks served over ice cubes, you would be right. I managed a bar and restaurant where there were plenty of drinks served on the rocks and plenty of sticky situations that came with the territory. But let’s put that on ice for now. If you thought On the Rocks indicated something or someone was experiencing difficulties and was likely to fail, you would also be right.

You might not know, however, that the “Rocks” also refers to McKees Rocks, a town of about 6,000 people occupying one square mile straight down the Ohio River from downtown Pittsburgh. The bordering township of Stowe is home to about the same number of people, but for all practical purposes, the two little towns are generally referred to as the “Rocks” (or “Rox”) collectively.

My family wasn’t from the Rocks, but we sometimes drove there on Saturdays to spend an afternoon. Bakeries, meat markets, pharmacies with soda fountains and penny candy, fruit and vegetable markets, shoe stores, and more populated Broadway and Chartiers Avenue, two ideal streets for shopping that met at a ninety-degree angle. I have vivid recollections of those childhood trips: staring at the medicinal leeches in a jar near the cash register at Leftkowitz’s Pharmacy; stopping cold on the sidewalk the first time I heard the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” blaring out of a record store’s speakers; gently picking up pastel-dyed peeps at Eastertime from under the heat lamps at G. C. Murphy’s; trying on suits taken from thick plastic zip-up casings hanging in The Children’s Shop; and wondering why there were live chickens and an occasional turkey in the window of Jacobs Poultry, never guessing that the poultry was slaughtered and plucked to order or that the waiting chickens
provided the store’s fresh eggs. And I vaguely remember being inside Mary Lea Dairy, a busy deli that mainly sold lunchmeat but maintained a few tables for breakfast or lunch customers. I would never have believed that years later I would become the proprietor of a restaurant, The Primadonna, in that very same space.

We would usually end the day on Chartiers Avenue, where our parents would give us a few minutes to go downstairs to the toy section at G. C. Murphy five and dime. Every kid knew how to save a few cents to buy a set of jacks or a comic book on such occasions. Then we’d head across the street to Isaly’s, where it was always
Skyscraper cones for the kids and Krispy Klondikes for my parents. Between the two retail areas on a small side street stood Mancini’s Bakery, famous for Italian bread that is still delivered fresh daily to stores and restaurants around Pittsburgh. We’d all get out of the car to experience the incomparable aroma inside the bakery. This was always our last stop, and if we were lucky, we’d get warm loaves right out of the ovens. My brother, sister, and I would take turns sticking our noses into the white paper bags, inhaling and savoring the smell of the fresh loaves.

Pre–and post–World War II McKees Rocks was a popular place for my parents’ generation to meet and date. They often talked about the huge ice rink behind the business district on Chartiers Avenue that drew crowds from all over. The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, Pulaski Club, Italian Sons & Daughters of America, the Moose Lodge, and other such social clubs had well-stocked bars and beers on tap, hosting popular big-band style dances. There were two movie theaters and a couple of busy bowling alleys, along with many “beer gardens.”

The Rocks sustained six Roman Catholic churches and their schools, each built and supported by different ethnicities. Along with those churches came bingos, pierogi kitchens, spaghetti dinners, and rummage sales. We loved when our parents took us to church festivals in the Rocks, with the whirring of the betting wheels that slowed to a clickety-clack, pick-a-ticket chances at winning stuffed animals, and roasters full of homemade ethnic food, from stuffed cabbages to German potato salad or pasta fagioli, depending on the church. There were several Protestant churches and one synagogue as well, and a happy life with a full calendar could be lived within the boundaries of the Rocks.

The Rocks boasts a lot of famous people for its two square miles. Some of the more distinguished include Justice Michael A. Musmanno, presiding judge at the Nuremberg trials, and John Kasich, former governor of Ohio and presidential hopeful in the 2016 primaries. “But wait! There’s more—” is what McKees Rocks native Billy Mays, former renowned TV pitchman for OxiClean, would’ve said here. Cartoonist Jeff Smith, creator of the popular Bone comics, was born in the Rocks. The Rocks repeatedly produces champion sports teams with all-star athletes, many of whom turn pro, contributing significantly to Western Pennsylvania’s reputation
as a breeding ground for athletic talent. Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills beloved #3 who suffered a cardiac event on the field, was from the area. His designated daycare charity that received nearly $9 million in donations as he fought for his life in the hospital sits right across the alley from the building that was once my restaurant.

There is historical evidence that George Washington, John F. Kennedy, Al Capone, and the Three Stooges all spent time in the Rocks. And get this—so did Jamie Lee Curtis, Danny Aiello, Pat Sajak, Cyril Wecht, Michael Keaton, Franco Harris, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, and many other celebrities. I can attest to this personally because they came to my restaurant.

Around the same time that new malls began to draw shoppers from downtown Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle, the suburbs lured young families from the Rocks. New housing boomed on former farmland a mile or so up the hill in Kennedy Township, and a modern strip mall began to steal business from the Rocks’s merchants. It wasn’t long before businesses were boarded-up and retail shops were turned into accounting firms or dentist offices. A few businesses hung on, but as the vacancies left gaps in families’ needs, McKees Rocks was no longer a destination for anyone but the locals.

I remember the first Saturday night in seventeen years that I didn’t go to the restaurant. 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 o’clock 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?

I’ll give you the short version of my history—the things you might wonder about later if I don’t. I grew up in the Greenfield neighborhood
in the city of Pittsburgh in a modest house. My parents were Italian immigrants. My father owned a cocktail lounge, Le Mardi Gras, in the upscale neighborhood of Shadyside, and my mother was a hardworking housewife whose duties centered on cooking. We lived simply and frugally.

We rarely went out to dinner and didn’t go on vacations, which might have been different if my father weren’t so in love with his cars. Displayed in the alley between houses were a light blue and white ’57 Chevy, a gold 1970 Cadillac Ed Dorado with black leather interior, a dark blue 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass, a lime green 1976 Chevy Montecarlo, a light blue 1969 Oldsmobile Toronado, and a tan 1962 Chevy Impala. My father had this odd ritual where he would move each car daily. Every morning he would choose a new place to park each car, as though he were saying, “You are my favorite today; you are not.” His true favorite, however, was the’57 Chevy, a massive, sleek, Batmobile-like machine with “wings” on each side of the trunk that enabled it to simulate flight even at speeds under 35 mph. It seems incongruous that he displayed his wealth in this way when the rest of his life was one of slipping quietly under the radar, but he did.

In 1973, while still in college, I took a job with the United States Postal Service, working from 6 o’clock in the evening until 2:30 in the morning while attending classes during the day. Donna was working as a flight attendant for Allegheny Airlines. With both of us working, we were fortunate to be able to save money. We married in 1974 and settled temporarily in an apartment complex. In 1977, we moved from the apartment to a functional house. The house was about twenty years old, located in Ingram, a working-class area of Pittsburgh. Over the years, we poured a lot of money and sweat into the place, upgrading with central air, a patio in then backyard, and a toolshed. We replaced the windows and put on a new roof. We thought that this is where we would be forever. Donna became pregnant in 1980, but she was not sure whether she would continue working. She loved the job, and it paid well. She had three months of maternity leave during which she had to decide.

When our daughter Maria was born in 1981, our whole lives changed for the better. We were caught up in the incomparable joy of being new parents. While it was a happy time, Donna was also drained and frail, having lost a good bit of weight. Looking back, she probably experienced post-partum depression, but we didn’t know
anything about that at the time. Giving up the job seemed the best choice. Donna is quite adaptable, and her new priority was our baby. When we added one person and subtracted one job, however, money was tight. Even so, we didn’t really consider anything a struggle, just a different way of living.

“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 guzzled 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.”

“Aww, 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. My mailbag felt heavier in the summer heat, but the monotony of the job diminished when the weather allowed me to interact with the people I served. 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 projects 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 o’clock, and I made it a point to hurry home each afternoon. When Reading Rainbow came on TV, little Maria knew it was time for Daddy to come home, and she would wait at 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 by a piggyback 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? But what about the dragon?” Then we’d run around the house laughing as we acted out the scenario.

“Everything go 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 many times.

I always 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. Some people might have been satisfied with a secure middleclass 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 Le 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 US 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.”

“All right, all right. 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.