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Giordano’s on Martha’s Vineyard


A traditional Italo-American restaurant taps its fifth generation.Wine and food rites go back 3OOO years – even longer – around the Mediterranean. When Italians and Greeks came to the new world, traditions of vine and table remained a binding force, and a source of comfort to themselves and others. Yet it’s increasingly rare to find family-run establishments that continue the vertiginous path to a centennial. Giordano’s on Martha’s Vineyard, founded in 193O, is one such place; the landmark pizza palace celebrated its ‘big eight-oh’ to a typically full house on June 2.
Barely a quahog’s toss from the Woods Hole/Oak Bluffs ferry dock, on “The Corner” at Circuit Avenue, Giordano’s is the first place you come to, opposite Flying Horses, the vintage carousel. Gio’s (its local nickname) packs in 1OO diners, and its Clam Bar takeout usually has a long line. You won’t spend a lot (certainly by “Island Standards”) for fresh fish and chowder. The big-nickel menu item is the $22 steak. Buster Giordano, third-generation co-owner explains: “That’s a 14-ounce strip sirloin, with chowder, potato, veg, coffee, and dessert. No credit cards, please! As my father loved to say, ‘A fast nickel beats a slow dollar.’
“We’re so into tradition!” laughs Buster, whose office walls are covered with photos of family, staff, famous guests, customers, and pre-World War II menus. Grandparents Edwardo and Maria Giordano (they called themselves ‘Jordan’ to assimilate better) had the foresight to open an Italian restaurant on the Vineyard in 193O. Buster tells the story: “Ever since they came here from Italy, they were in the food business. Their first place was in Lake Winnepesaukee, New Hampshire – a spaghetti and soda shop. I have a permit here from the Licensing Board for the City of Boston, dated 1935, for their off-season diner at 835 Washington Street. A friend told my grandpa he’d love the Vineyard because it would remind him of the fishing village in Naples where he was raised. So they went to have a look.”
The Giordanos found themselves impressed by Martha’s Vineyard’s popularity as a thriving seasonal destination. Oak Bluffs’ fame grew in the 185Os when Methodist church groups held summer camp meetings in “Wesleyan Grove”. By 189O, the religious groups’ tents were folding and summer vacationers were building pastel cut-out gingerbread cottages. Wesleyan Grove turned into “Cottage City”, and “Cottage City” into Oak Bluffs. Steamships brought vacationers from New York, Providence, Boston, and Portland, and a steam train (or horse-and-buggy) carried them to island destinations – as far away as Katama (on the south coast, 12 miles away). Oak Bluffs quickly exploded into a resort town with many handsome hotels, inns, restaurants, a boardwalk, and huge roller skating rink.
“So,” continues Buster, “they came and – it worked!” The Giordanos opened their first restaurant in the old Pawnee House across from the Post Office. They seated 35 diners. Pizza was baked in old-style wood-burning ovens with sand insulation; they’d start them up early in the morning with kindling, then coal, to reach the proper temperature. A small (1O”) pizza cost 15 cents, a large (14”) two bits. They were only open July 4 through Labor Day; today we’re open May through October every day from 11 to 11 – and every day is like Saturday.”
Wilfred Giordano, Sr., Edwardo and Mary’s son, started as a waiter in the restaurant, earning penny tips. Once he’d taken over the family business, Wilfred moved the restaurant to “The Corner”. In 1943, he bought the beautiful old Magnolia Restaurant from Walter Perkins and gradually phased it into Giordano’s. At that time there was no pizza takeout. The Restaurant and Clam Bar (a former laundromat) were separated by an empty lot. In 1969, they tore down the Clam Bar and kitchen, and hired local architect Wilfred Lawrence to build the Pizza Place, new Clam Bar and new kitchen.
Buster and Richie, sons of Wilfred Sr. and Antonette, grew up working in the restaurant. When Wilfred retired, they took over and continued the business in the family tradition. In 1976, they hired Frank, Peter and Heidi Dunkle, a Vineyard family or artisans, to come in to renovate – or rather reinstate – the building to its former Victorian splendor. The extensive facelift included: inserting leaded stained glass motifs around the window casements, installing Victorian raised-panel wooden friezes, and repainting in original Victorian colors (gold, red, green). They removed the dropped ceiling, refurbished the original coffered wood ceiling, and hung handcrafted light fixtures.
The Giordanos today: “Generation Four” does good box office, as Buster and Richie’s kids work the rooms and window, and plan the sequel. Bill, who attended UNH’s Hotel Management and Culinary program, runs the kitchen and makes the soups and sauces. Carl, a grad of Syracuse U. in design and graphics, designs menus and logos and works in the pizza department. Jason went to UNH’s Whittemore School of Business; he worked with his grandmother in the clam bar, took over when she retired, and manages seafood takeout. Buster says, “I met my wife Valerie in 1969; she was a computer specialist even then, and took over business management from my father Wilfred. She was mystified by his scraps-of-paper accounting and cigar-box cash register! As bookkeeper, she really keeps us in line. Richie and Nancy’s children are in it, too. Leanne, who went to Merrimac College, is both dining room manager and mixologist; Michael, who works in the pizza room with his father and cousins, helps with computer stuff and design.
The family’s strictly Neapolitan, and so is Gio’s menu. Pizza Neapolitan is made with fresh dough ever day, hand-tossed, coated with homemade sauce (in a recipe unchanged since the 194Os), topped with blended parmesan and ground mozzarella (so it’s nice and firm), and just enough oil (so it’s not greasy, but just so it won’t burn). Two brick ovens, classic Bakers’ Pride, can, and often do, hold 14 pies apiece. Buster, who oversees operations (a staff of 75) and ‘takes the heat’, says: “All summer it’s turn and burn! We’ll seat 8OO a day.”
Seafood takeout is the thing at The Clam Bar, and since the 194Os the local quahog chowder is a standby. “An Edgartown guy brings us bushels of island quahogs almost every day,” reports Buster. Meat sauce is made with beef only. Plain sauce contains no oregano, while pizza sauce does (along with some classified ingredients). Buster adds, “We grow our own basil.” Side of fries or rings? A Giordano hand-cuts onion rings and blanches fresh potatoes every day. And one of the kids is always folding endless stacks of pizza boxes.
Drinks are kinda traditional, too. “In the ’5Os,” recalls Buster, “we served Ballantine Ale, Narragansett Beer and Carlo Rossi jug wine. My father was close with Gerry Sheehan’s family of Louis Knife, the South Shore Budweiser distributors, and Bob Epstein, who back then owned Brockton Wholesale [which would become Horizon Beverage]. He’s another close friend, beyond business; he lived on the Vineyard. Bob’s kids have taken over his business – another traditionalist. I didn’t know what a beverage journal was, or 2 for 12s and case deals; we had to learn it, and they taught us the beverages.”
Giordano’s has served wine and beer since Day One, but they’ve had a full liquor license only since the 196Os. “We have no bar room,” admits Buster, “not even a sit-down bar, just a service bar. “It’s to accommodate our diners, really. If a bunch of guys come in here looking for drinks only, I tell them, ‘There’s a real bar room next door, The Ritz.’ Our house wines ($5.5O) are Beringer White Zin and Stone Cellars (chardonnay, merlot), Gabbiano Chianti DOCG and Pinot Grigio. On draft it’s Stella Artois, Sam Adams, Sam Summer, Sierra Nevada; in bottle Michelob Ultra, Bud, Bud Lite, Corona, and others.
Leanne, who tends bar off-season too, creates bar drinks ($6.99) with names of Vineyard locales. Cottage City Cosmopolitan (Absolut Citron, Cointreau, fresh lime, splash of cranberry); Sterling Sour Apple (Citron, Apple Pukka); Pawnee House Pink Lemonade (Citron, Triple Sec, cranberry, splash of sour); Grand Illumination (Stoli Raz, peach schnapps, cranberry, pineapple juice); Nor’easter (Malibu Rum, Blue Curaçao, pineapple). Absolut Bloody Marys and Mimosas are $3.99 with lunch.
The Giordanos aim to keep the family working together. Buster says, “I’ll slow down, so will Richard. We’ve brought it to a second level. At this point, we’re satisfied. As my father liked to say, ‘You can always find a Giordano in the kitchen.’ Our cousins work here during college, but usually move on. I got a picture of my grandchildren washing dishes, so that’ll be the fifth generation. I’m 66, he’s 59, so we’re handing the reins over to all the kids.”
Carl chimes in on the imperative of blood driving the fourth generation: “I enjoy making the best pizza around – that’s most gratifying. Our best seller, given the Portuguese population here, is the Vineyard Special (onion, peppers, mushroom, linguiça, Genoa salami). And we sell a lot of cheese slices! The hardest part of my job is twelve hours a day in the middle of August in front of a 55O° oven. On the business front, I enjoy redefining the logo, creating a brand we can market that’s universal. Right now, it’s the menu cover, but later a full redesign. After October, we go back to America, to life on the mainland. I enjoy snowboarding, going into ski country, visiting winter resorts – as a vacationer.”
The Giordano fiefdom may someday migrate off-island, but probably not far, and nobody seems to be voicing empire aspirations. “We’ve thought about expanding,” muses Carl, “but the great redo down here over the last few years has put it on hold. We constantly brainstorm about possibly expanding. Since we have our captive audience from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island all summer long, we’d stay in Massachusetts but make a jump to the mainland.”
Carl’s brother Bill chimes in on the future of clan and brand: “I have kids aged 6, 4 and 2 who I hope will someday get involved. Family is not included in child labor laws, you know; like farmers, families have their own rules. More family members may get involved – we’d like to keep it going, we like consistency. One thing for sure: there won’t be a Gio’s chain up and down the East Coast. What I enjoy about summers on the Vineyard is not the beach! I like coming to work, working with my father and brother. I’m in the kitchen, taking care of sauces and specials. Today’s special is Grilled Salmon Piccata over rice pilaf, with capers, white wine, lemon juice. Everybody does chicken or veal, but we like to spotlight our local seafood – we’ve been dealing with North Coast Seafoods since my grandfather’s day. When it’s hot in the kitchen, I like a Nut-Brown Ale, porter or Newcastle Brown.”