Papa Joe's Italian Restaurant, the iconic Brooksville eatery that celebrated its 32nd year in October, was destroyed by fire early Friday.
The family-owned restaurant was engulfed in flames with thick smoke when firefighters arrived at about 3:15 a.m.
Assistant Hernando County Fire Rescue Chief Kevin Carroll said although the State Fire Marshal will determine the exact cause of the fire, local officials believe the blaze started just outside the kitchen and quickly spread throughout the building.
No one was in the eatery during the fire, Carroll said, and none of approximately 25 firefighters on the scene was injured while extinguishing the fire.
Firefighters, law enforcement and restaurant staff remained at the restaurant at 6244 Spring Lake Highway later Friday morning. Bystanders clutched coffee cups and snapped photographs of the extensive damage.
No other buildings were affected, fire officials said.
Italian immigrant Joe Giarratana and his wife, Donna, opened Papa Joe's in 1981, and it became a hometown favorite among residents and visitors.
Papa Joe's has hosted everything from community club lunches to class reunions and even wedding proposals. The restaurant also is known for supporting and assisting charities and events, and the Giarratanas host a weekly cooking show, "Loving Food" that can be seen online and on local cable television.
"Joe and Donna are two of the best people I've ever met in my life," said Don Penn, a cook who showed up at the destroyed restaurant Friday morning after he heard about the fire.
Penn said the Giarratanas gave him a chance about seven months ago when they hired him. The cook said he had served prison time in the past, and although he had solid skills, he had applied to about 100 other places before the Giarratanas hired him.
"They have very loyal employees and customers," Penn said.
Joe Giarratana was not immediately available for comment Friday.
Hernando Today staff writer Wendy Joan Biddlecombe contributed to this report.
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