By Sabrina Liguori
Spring 2020 JRN 363
Joseph Migliucci, one of the most esteemed restaurateurs of the Bronx’s Little Italy, fell victim to the coronavirus on the morning of April 6, 2020. He was 81 years old – the fourth generation of Migliuccis to run Vera Mario’s Pizzeria. Joseph was my grandfather’s cousin.
I’d like to think that most of us have an experience where something taken for granted suddenly becomes truly remarkable. An experience, even if it’s just a moment, where you see something in a whole new light. For me, this happened at a young age. And the ordinary thing was pizza.
I wasn’t the biggest fan of pizza as a child. I was a picky eater, and I didn’t like the sauce. I would always request a sauceless pizza – except when I was at Mario’s.
The epitome of fine Italian dining, my extended family’s historic restaurant on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx has always been a source of pride for me. I grew up in Vermont and New York City was big, busy and unfamiliar. But when I was at Mario’s, I felt right at home.
For more than a century, Mario’s restaurant has been a little Italy all its own. Pizza was the name of the game in the early 1900s, when Scolastica Migliucci and her son, Giuseppe, came to America and opened a restaurant that eventually became known as Mario’s, after Giuseppe’s son. It was Mario – Joseph’s father and my great-great uncle – who expanded the restaurant to serve a full fine-dining menu in the 1930s. Mario had dreams for his son beyond the family business, encouraging Joseph to pursue an engineering degree. But Joseph had a knack for running the place and it proved to be his true passion.
If I could go back in time and taste a pizza through the window of the early-day Mario’s, I doubt it would taste much different than today’s version. That’s the kind of restaurant it is – true to tradition and uncompromising on quality. One thing I know for certain is that the food at Mario’s is made with love. There’s no other explanation for the way it makes you feel. And it’s not just the pizza. It’s the same with everything on the menu – from the baked clams to the classic lasagna – which is why the menu has barely changed throughout the years.
I certainly fell in love every time I stepped into Mario’s as a child. I still do. When you walk through the red-canopied front door into the waiting area, you’re greeted by a smiling woman with shiny black hair, dark eyes and a friendly smile reminiscent of Joseph’s. Regina Migliucci-Delfino, one of Joseph’s four children and three stepchildren, is the perfect hostess. She’s worked at the restaurant full-time since the 1980s. She knows all the regulars by name and is a natural conversationalist. Even if you’re walking in for the very first time, she greets you like an old friend.
Colorful paintings of Italian landscapes line the walls of the restaurant. All were done by my great-grandfather and Joseph’s uncle, Ciro Liguori. My favorite depicts the Blue Grotto off the coast of Capri, a natural sea cave filled with iridescent azure water. The aromas of tomato, chicken, garlic and cheese waft through the double doors that lead to a bustling kitchen in a back corner of the restaurant.
Regina’s stepmother and Joseph’s wife, Barbara – known for her sweet nature and sense of humor – is stationed at the computer just outside the doors. A small window to the kitchen reveals the burly man behind it all, donned in a flour-covered apron, tossing pizza dough high into the air and catching it – again and again and again – with almost acrobatic control.
In my mind, he will always be the world’s best pizza chef.
Joseph’s skill in the kitchen was only rivaled by his dedication to his family. And not just his big Italian brood of grandkids and distant cousins like myself – everyone who eats at the restaurant is treated like family. How could I be so lucky as to be a part of all that?
One time, when I was about seven years old, Joseph tried to teach me how to flip the pizza dough like he did. I kept asking him to repeat the technique as if I could follow suit, but really I just liked to watch him do it. My two older sisters and I crowded next to his pizza station and eagerly piled the dough with sauce, cheese, basil and more cheese. He slid the pizzas into the wood-fired brick oven and set his mental clock. Somehow, they always came out perfect. That day, we took a few extras home as well as some spare dough, which is so good you could practically eat it by itself. When we got home, we used it to make a dessert pizza with chocolate, peanut butter and toasted marshmallows.
In those days, I always ordered a Margherita pizza. But when I got older – and my taste buds got more sophisticated – I decided to try something else. I ordered chicken francese – lightly breaded chicken breast soaked in lemon butter sauce – accompanied by spaghetti smothered in the same sauce. It’s one of those meals you could eat every day for the rest of your life and never get sick of. I’ve ordered it every time since.
Despite how amazing the food is, the best part about eating at Mario’s is and always has been catching up with my family. Diane, Joseph’s sister and her husband Michael, who live in New York and whom I met at Mario’s as a child. My Dad’s cousin and childhood buddy, Kevin, who grew up with him in the Bronx and had the rehearsal dinner for his wedding at Mario’s – of course, my dad was his best man. And perhaps my favorite, “Aunt Rosie,” Joseph’s late mother, who gave me my first piece of real jewelry – a gold chain I wore for years until it broke, but that I keep in a box on my crowded bureau and treasure to this day.
Going to Mario’s was always an adventure – piling into the minivan with my sisters and younger brother for a five-hour ride filled with road games, naps, music and the occasional argument. But as soon as we pulled up at the red-canopied front door and the valet took our car, we were ready to eat – everything from fresh, warm bread with olive oil for dipping to tortufa and cappuccinos for dessert. My sister, Amanda, took Polaroids of the waiters. My brother, Scott, and sister, Danielle, sat on either side of Aunt Rosie. My parents made the rounds among our relatives. And I made a beeline for Joseph.
Even though we only made it to Mario’s a few times a year, there were few other places that felt so much like home.
The last time I was there, it was a Saturday night in October. The place seats 120 people and it was packed. I was dining alone, but I didn’t mind at all. IN fact, I was more at peace than I had been in months. I’m a full-time student at Stony Brook University, and I’d just come from a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Asia Society, a field trip for my art history class. It was the perfect excuse to stop in at Mario’s.
I felt Joseph’s presence in the kitchen long before I saw him that night. After eating an entire plate of bruschetta, my favorite Mario’s appetizer, I said a quick hello and gave Joseph a hug. I would have held him a lot longer if I’d known it would be my last. I saw him once again that night on my way to the restroom, and he flashed a toothy grin.
Going by train from the city to Stony Brook is always exhausting, but it’s a little more bearable with a full belly and a box of leftovers. I sat on the floor of Penn Station, clinging to my spaghetti with francese sauce as if ti was my only food for the week. I looked forward to eating it almost as much as I was already looking forward to my next excursion to the Bronx.
Five months later, when my leftovers were long gone and the whole world was reeling from a pandemic, I heard that Joseph had fallen ill to the novel coronavirus. My heart sank.
By then, Stony Brook University had sent me and thousands of other students home to finish the semester remotely. From hundreds of miles away in Vermont, I felt helpless – but hopeful. I’m a journalism major and somewhere inside, I always wanted to write about Joseph and the restaurant that holds such a place in my family – and in my heart. I was hopeful that before long I’d be writing the story of a great man’s recovery from a terrible disease. Hopeful that I could finally express in writing what Joseph means to me. And hopeful that he could read it.
I’m not the most religious person, but I began to pray. I prayed for his health and comfort at a time when his family couldn’t even visit him at White Plains Hospital. His granddaughter, Lauren, a nurse at the hospital, comforted him when no one else could. She wore blue rubber gloves and held his hand. She helped him FaceTime his wife of 49 years, all his children and his 15 other grandchildren. Joseph was far from alone.
Joseph Migliucci died on April 6 – but he will live on through his family and his restaurant.
The selflessness that defined him throughout his life also defined him in his final days. He gave up his ventilator so it might save someone else. It was a sacrifice that only someone who felt true contentment in the life he’d lived could make.
Joseph’s final request was that Regina take the reins of the restaurant when it reopens. She promised she would, and he assured her that he’d be by her side every step of the way. She represents a new generation of family leadership for Vera Mario’s Pizzeria.
One that will carry on Joseph’s legacy of good food and love of family – one pizza at a time.
Three months after its kitchen went quiet, Mario’s reopened on June 25 for take-out and outdoor dining with Regina at the helm. The reopening came shortly after it was announced that Arthur Avenue would be closed to road traffic on the weekends. From 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday and Sundays, physically distanced dining tables will span the street. Like many other restaurants in the Bronx’s Little Italy, Mario’s has turned its sidewalk space into an outdoor dining room where customers can feast on their favorite Italian dishes once more.