When Joe Giarratana discusses what ignites his passion, you can't miss the emotion in his eyes. As an Italian immigrant, Giarratana stepped onto American soil in New York a 17-year-old with broad aspirations and undaunted ambition. He grounded his roots with a foundation rich in Italian culture and spiritual values.
Forty years later, Giarratana sits at a table inside Papa Joe's Italian Restaurant, the American dream he and his wife, Donna, brought to fruition. Before the start of a normal business day, the facility is quiet except for an occasional echo from the kitchen as the day's prep gets under way. The Giarratanas' schedules are busy as the restaurant prepares for its 30th anniversary. The birthday celebration, which is held each year on the first Tuesday of October, will be their biggest yet.
Giarratana smiled as he reminisced about the restaurant's past. Still in its original location off Spring Lake Highway, the facility was once a sandwich shop named Teddy Bear's. He and Donna purchased the shop in 1981 and changed the name to Papa Joe's.
"We started out selling pizza and sandwiches," Giarratana remembered.
He and Donna are the masterminds behind one of Hernando County's longest-running icons. Located six miles east of Brooksville, the restaurant is a hometown favorite among residents and visitors. The food is prepared fresh and from scratch each day. In addition to the restaurant, the Giarratanas also operate a full continental catering service, an Italian Deli, and the Capricci Gift Shop with Healing Waters Day Spa in the same location.
The Giarratanas' youngest son, Giovanni, who works alongside his parents, believes the restaurant's success can be credited to a few factors: "There is such an extensive menu. There's something for everyone. And it's not just Italian. My dad makes an incredible steak."
Interestingly, Giarratana's skills in the kitchen came more from his time spent in New York than from his childhood in Italy. His first job, he said, was working as a temp, rolling meatballs.
Giovanni, 25, grew up in Papa Joe's and has a unique perspective on the business. "What I like about the restaurant business is that I see it like the people are coming into our home," he said. "This is our home and we welcome you into it."
His parents, he said, are all about giving back. "It's not just about making good food and running a successful business," he said. "It's about the community. That's what I've learned from them. It's about giving back to the community."
Papa Joe's has a long list of accomplishments in supporting and assisting local charities and events in Hernando County.
Most notable is their cooking show, "Loving Food," first taped in mid-February and aired in March. The show airs weekly on the Government Channel, Bright House 622, and is also streamed through their website. The 30-minute show stars Joe and Donna, who demonstrate the preparation of specific dishes. Recipes are included on the website.
Participating in a cooking show was always a dream the Giarratanas wanted to pursue. But it was on a family trip to New Jersey, and a detour to see "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro at the encouragement of the Giarratana's granddaughter, that inspired Donna and set things in motion.
Each segment also profiles a local nonprofit organization and showcases activities around the county for the nonprofit. "That way, those who don't know what's going on can seek help or give help," Giarratana said. "So far it's working out. It's bringing people together." The money that is raised for the nonprofit is impressive, from $500 to $1,000 per segment, Giarratana said.
The nonprofits profiled are first asked to submit a wish list of needs other than financial. "Then we solicit other businesses to try and meet those needs," Giovanni explained. The businesses that donate items on the lists are given a commercial spot. "We want to highlight the philanthropy of the businesses as well."
Some of the nonprofits that have benefited include the Arc Nature Coast, New Generation, New Beginnings of Youth and Family Alternative, the Dawn Center, the Kiwanis and Shallow Problem Solvers.
Viewers get an up-close dose of what makes the Giarratanas work so well together. "They have a really cute dynamic," Giovanni said about his parents. "They are very passionate."
For now, Papa Joe's is busy planning and implementing their 30th birthday celebration. Every Papa Joe's birthday bash includes a huge gala of family-friendly activities including a bounce house and carnival games, along with their famous Spaghetti Fest, where the restaurant will serve all-you-can-eat spaghetti for just $0.99. The main celebration begins at 11 a.m. Tuesday.
But this year they've gone even bigger. The party branched out into a three-day festival set to begin Friday, with local live entertainment. Saturday is the Battle of the Bands Competition, in which 12 bands will compete for points toward winning a commemorative snare drum. All of the money raised from the Battle of the Bands Competition and the raffle drawings will benefit the Arc Nature Coast.
Food has an amazing power that goes far beyond nourishment. It comforts, calms and heals. Papa Joe's Italian Restaurant continues to prove that fact by continually giving back to the community it has called home for 30 years.
"One hand washes the other," Joe said, reciting an old saying, "and the two wash the face."