Johnny Pizza, along with his business partner Roger Diaz, own the charming Hoboken Cafe on Whitlock in Marietta, Georgia. They’ve become famous for their amazing meatball sandwiches, their delicious salads and cheesecakes and especially for the most tender fresh mozzarella cheese you’ll ever taste. Mr. Pizza makes it himself, every morning, and he cooks with joy and passion for his faithful customers at the Hoboken Cafe.
Back in the day, he used to not only cook, but also take care of the transportation and security of some remarkable people. Pat Cooper, Frank Sinatra and his son, Frank Sinatra Jr., Joan Collins, Liza Minnelli and many other famous entertainers of yesteryear, they all worked with Mr. Pizza and trusted him in essential aspects of their lives. Born and raised in the town of Hoboken, New Jersey, this guy that came from very quiet beginnings really did good in life. He had the chance to spend time with the likes of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Taylor – who actually brought out his birthday cake one night in Las Vegas! – Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt and anybody who is anybody in Hollywood and around the globe.
In this interview, broadcast and published exclusively on The Paul Leslie Hour and LaRevista.ro, Johnny Pizza shares his incredible experiences and tells the story of his life.
Johnny Pizza, you come from Hoboken. How was life growing up?
Yes, I was born and raised in Hoboken, quite a famous little town. My grandfather came to Hoboken in 1904 and settled there with his family, never knowing that that family was going to be part of a great city that had so many lovely, wonderful things, historically, industry wise, entertainment wise. It was kind of amazing for me, as I started to learn about all of these things in my early teens, to be a part of a culture that in today’s standards is not found in many places anymore.
Hoboken is an interesting town. Frank Sinatra came from there and people came from all around the world, believe it or not. They landed in Ellis Island in New York City’s harbor, and many had to pass through Hoboken to get to where they were going to be settling.
That’s where the story begins, from the little town of Hoboken, New Jersey. I’m just a little kid who came from Hoboken and made good.
When somebody says „Hoboken,” what’s the first thing that pops into your head?
Family. Food. Trust. People you grew up with were your friends, die hard friends. It gave you such a great start to something called „life”. And not many people from rural areas in middle America have some sort of that backgrounds. Hoboken was quite unique in what it brought to the table of life.
What would you say the culture of Hoboken was like when you were growing up?
Oh, marvelous! It was magical! As a little kid running down the street, going up to the waterfront and seeing these huge buildings across the Hudson river and not knowing what they really meant. Years later, you come into this vast idea of what that really is all about. You go through the tunnel to New York City and you have everything at your fingertips, everything from around the globe!
Mind you, back to the early turn of the century, we didn’t have trucking, we didn’t have transportation like we do today. Back in the day, when you needed coffee beans from Brazil, they were imported and they were sent to you by ship. You wanted some of the beautiful silks? They came from India, all shipped on ocean liners. And where did they dock? They docked into Hoboken, New Jersey, not New York City. And there’s a reason for that: the reason those boats came into Hoboken was because we had the Erie Lackawanna train terminal there. So if you had all of these goods coming from around the globe, they would land into Hoboken, and then they had to go into the other 50 states. If they landed into New York City, they would have to put them on a boat to bring them across the river to get on that train. So Hoboken was very key to all of this mercantile exchange. That, in its own history back in the early days, is amazing to me!
I was a big railroad buff when I was a little kid, I enjoyed seeing the trains coming in and out of the stockyards. It had quite an impact on me. Transportation had quite an impact on me, which is going to be in a later segment of this story. So that’s what it was to be growing up in Hoboken, with that end of it.
The family end of it – we came from families that were very, very tight knit. We had every ethnicity in our town, whether it be Spanish, Puerto Ricans, Yugoslavians, the Jewish background, the Italian background, we had Germans. And that’s where the food came into Hoboken: a lot of these people came from little towns across the globe and opened up their little stores, bringing the most delectable food to this little city. Then it went into the rest of the United States as well. The Holland American Line was a big transportation steamship line at the time. People would be coming and going on luxurious trips in the 30s, 40s and 50s. All of that food had to be prepared somewhere and some of the people who would settle in Hoboken wound up getting jobs on the steamships and creating those delicious foods.
What do you think was the most important lesson that you’ve learned growing up in this incredible atmosphere?
Trust. Be who you are and do what you say you’re going to do and I don’t think you’ll ever have a problem in your life. Don’t ever try and be something that you’re not. That’s one of my mottos. I learned that from my parents, from my friends, from the people I grew up with. They were all very stand-up characters and believe me, if anyone knows what a Damon Runyon character is, many of them came from Hoboken. These were real larger than life people that could have been in any one of those movies. Funny characters, but they all had a true good meaning in life. They brought something positive to the table, they gave you something to walk away with, in a way that you could live the rest of your life as a good human being. And I think that some of that is lost in today’s world.
Anybody who comes from Hoboken will tell you that growing up there really gave you a good stable foundation for your future.
Later, when you were a teenager, what did you want to do in life?
Everything! There’s nothing you can’t conquer in this world. As a teenager, I grew up around – I don’t want to say impoverished – but Hoboken wasn’t a very popular town in that timeframe. In the early 70s, a lot of places were going bankrupt, big companies were moving out of Hoboken to go into more lucrative areas. So growing up in the 70s, things weren’t so good in Hoboken. There was a bar in every corner and half of them were not busy, restaurants were going out of business, and coming from the culture of doing good, people were doing well and they were being penalized for it because they were moving out and not having that stability that has been in Hoboken for many years. But as the time fared, the people that had those values, their values never changed, whether they had 20 or 200 people in the restaurant. The workers, the cooks, they were all putting 200% into what they were doing at the time. That was a great thing to see as a youngster, it gave me some good foundation for the rest of my life and the things that I endeavored through the years. That is truly remarkable to me.
We know you started a limousine business at some point and that you have a really interesting story about that. How did it start?
Well, that goes back again to Hoboken in my early days. Loving the transportation, as a little boy growing up and going to Catholic school, I had to go by the Catholic Church every day to get to school. And on days, there were these big cars pulled up in front of the church – of course, they were for funerals. But I was always mesmerized by automobiles, I loved them, so as a little kid driving around and getting a chance to see New York City, you saw even more of these fancy cars. In New York there was a plethora of different vehicles, one nicer than the other.
So here I was, passing by the church and seeing these big shiny cars, it turns out to be that one of my schoolmate’s father owned a funeral home. On our way home, we would stop at the garage where those cars were coming back from the funerals and they needed to be washed. So I started washing them, I was maybe 12-13 years old. I was taking care of these vehicles and dreaming some day of being able to be one of those big New York transportation people. That gave me a little something to look forward to in what would become my career.
Fast-forward, we go into the early 80s and I’m going out of high school when I decided to get into the transportation business. So what do you do? You find a car and you get involved.
The first job that I had with my limousine was driving comedian Pat Cooper. I had gotten my car service name together and got right out there! I went to the Waldorf Astoria, I was over at the Friars Club, just waiting outside for these entertainers to come out. I got introduced to Pat Cooper, who was actually doing a show in Hoboken. We had the Italian Festival, it was 1983, and he needed someone to pick him up and bring him to the festival. We had several entertainers coming in for this event. Here I was, driving Pat Cooper for the first time. That opened up the door to working with some of his agents and again, it was where the trust came in. If these people said they needed you on time, you needed to be there. My handshake was my word and I respected that ever since I was 18. I just turned 50 a few months ago and I still stand by that handshake.
My early days with the transportation limousines opened up the door to transportation at a more executive level, as I grew with it. And that opened up the door to more celebrities, more people in the business industry and, before you know it, I was taking care of people going on private jets and flying around the world.
As time and luck would have it, these people took a liking to me, so I became not only a person providing transportation for them, but a lot of these people trusted me to the point that they welcomed me into their families. If they had a party or a wedding, I wasn’t going to their wedding as their driver, I was going as their friend. That really meant a lot to me.
You mentioned Pat Cooper – what is he really like as a person?
Oh, he’s a beautiful man! He’s very gruff on the outside and he’s very funny at telling life as it is. He’s a sweet, kind, gentle soul. When I was living in Las Vegas, I was able to get close with his family and embraced. He and his wife Patti and their daughter. Actually, when I first moved to Las Vegas, it was Pat Cooper’s wife who welcomed me to her home. The very first day I got there, she said: John, I want you to feel home here and I want you to know, if there’s anything you need here in Las Vegas, please, don’t ever be afraid to ask us. That opened up such a lovely experience, to be welcomed into a new place by people that are very busy with their lives, they don’t have time to be welcoming others. But Pat Cooper himself was quite an extraordinary individual: funny, he told it like it was and there was a lot of humor in what he would say. He comes across gruff and arrogant and angry – he was also dubbed „the angry comedian” for many years – but in his anger, he told the story and it was funny, and that’s what people loved about him. And I got to see that, on the inside, he wasn’t really that angry.
You just told us that you moved to Las Vegas. How and why did that happen?
That happened because you have to grow. When you get to a certain point in your life and your business is what it is, your family is what it is, you have opportunities. And I believe that in life, if you say “no” to an opportunity, you never revisit that offer ever again. At the time, Jilly Rizzo, who was a very dear friend of myself as well as my family, had been saying to me for many years, because I was taking care of the Sinatra transportation: Johnny, you really have to come West, you would really do very well out here, you’re a man of your word and we need people like you in this area, because we can’t find them. It took me about five years before that really sunk in and I believe it was 1996 when I decided to head to Las Vegas. I chose Las Vegas because Los Angeles wasn’t the entertainment Mecca as much as Vegas was. There was a lot more work going on in Las Vegas that was needed for my assistance.
When I got to Las Vegas, Jilly had already put me in touch with the people over at the Desert Inn Hotel and they were having a lot of trouble with the transportation. They would have people waiting with missed calls, people were waiting outside restaurants, the car wasn’t showing up in time to bring them back to the Desert Inn. When I came on board over there, they didn’t have one missed call. That lasted for about two years, until Steve Wynn bought the hotel to knock it down and make the big, beautiful Wynn hotel that’s there now.
In that two year time, I had been very involved with other entities: I became the personal assistant to the Lieutenant Governor of the state of Nevada in my circle of what I brought to the table, in transportation and body-guarding, and I got a phone call one day from Frank Sinatra, Jr., who was going to be appearing in town. Sinatra Sr. had already passed, that’s a whole other story. So Frank Jr. asked me to come on board for a week, because he was going to be there during the Frank Sinatra Slot Machine introduction. He asked me to take care of the stuff that he needed, as I did for his father and so many other entertainers at the time.
We were talking about opportunity. I left New Jersey to go to New York, to be able to do transportation and coordination at a larger scale. Then I got involved with so many other entertainers that we provided transportation and body-guarding for, with Merrill Kelem, a Sergeant retired from the Atlantic City Police Department, he was my partner in that. He provided the protection, whereas I provided the transportation. Between the two of us we had that section of the industry tied up. Jilly’s insistence that I move to Las Vegas, then getting to work with a lot of entertainers, then getting involved in the political world, then Frank Sinatra Jr. asking me to come work for him. These are all stepping stones of where you’re building your business and your life. And the trust value and the opportunity, if you don’t say “yes” to them, they will never be there for you again. That’s how I got to Las Vegas. When someone says: I have an opportunity for you, the word is not “no,” it is “yes.” Try and get into it if you can.
We would like to take you back a little and ask you how did you get from having one limousine to having a lot of contacts and growing your business and reputation in this field?
That goes back to trust again and doing what you’re asked to do. When you have people flying in from all around the globe, needing transportation, and you say you’re going to be there, you have to be there. I had 13 limousines at some point. That all comes on supply and demand. People that I had worked with were telling other people about me: Call Johnny Pizza, call Johnny Pizza! It was more word-of-mouth than anything else, I did no advertising whatsoever. But that’s where you have your pitfalls and your heights in business, because I couldn’t be in 13 stretch limousines at the same time. You have to find the key people that are going to be able to represent you at the level that you expect them to be providing service for you and your clients. That was a difficult situation to conquer, but we were able to do it back in those days. We searched and found people that were very trustworthy and I was lucky enough to have them on board.
The word-of-mouth got around to the different celebrities. Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, of course, being a comedian, he would invite me to the Friars Club for lunch, and the biggest entertainers on earth came to the Friars Club. One day Joan Collins came by the table: Hello, Henny, how are you? Hello, this is John, he’s my driver, if you ever need a limousine, he’s the man to call. Of course we exchanged cards with agents, if they happened to be there, and maybe in a day, a month or a year, all of a sudden I would get a phone call from somebody who would say: Joan Collins needs a ride and I hear that you have quality service. And that’s how it started to move. I was 21, 22, 23 years old.
What was the moment when you said to yourself: I’ve made it!
I haven’t been there yet! (laughs) That’s a rough question, because there are so many different things that come to mind of different points in my life. The turn of that was, believe it or not, the opening of Trump Tower in New York, on 58th Street. I got a phone call from the man who built that building, the architect. I didn’t know who he was, he said that he was going to the opening of the Trump Tower and he had heard that I was among the A list people to call. I picked this gentleman up, brought him to the building and of course, a lot of the entertainers who were living in New York were there. I was invited in to that evening, which is really remarkable. That was a turning point to me, when I saw all of these people who were larger than life, not just in the entertainment field, but in every gamut of life. That was a moment when I said to myself: Wow, I really must be somewhere!
From all the people that you met, was there anyone that you were the most in awe with?
Tell us about the first time you encountered him.
The first time I encountered Sinatra was as a little kid hearing about him in Hoboken. I’ve heard this name as a child growing up into my teenager years, and then finding out that he was one of the greatest singers around. He was Italian, he was from Hoboken and hearing all of this, it’s like one of the young kids of today hearing that Britney Spears comes from their hometown. Never ever thinking I’d meet this gentleman, it was amazing to hear about him and to hear all of the things that he did philanthropically, appearing in Madison Square Garden in front of 25,000 people at a time. As a youngster, it was kind of amazing.
Years later, I was maybe 18 or 19 years old. Our friend Jilly Rizzo had his birthday party in New York City at a restaurant called Rocky Lee’s, which is no longer there. I was told that Frank Sinatra was going to come at Jilly’s birthday party. Julie Budd was there, Vic Damone, Diahann Carroll – it was the who’s who of entertainment at midnight at this restaurant. I was there with a good comedian friend, his name is Morty Storm, a favorite comedian to the comedians, Sinatra absolutely adored him. We got to the party at 11:30 at night and I said to Morty: Oh, Sinatra is not going to come here tonight, he’s in Atlantic City, he’s got a show at 8:00 o’clock and one at 11:30. He’s never going to be here at 12:00! He said: Don’t worry, Frank will be here!
So the party is going on, people are singing, the comedians are telling all kinds of jokes and it’s getting later and later, and in the wee small hours of the morning, approaching 2:00 AM, here we are in the private room of the restaurant, and there’s this stir, a beautiful glow in the evening. All of a sudden, there was an air that came across that room. I’m sitting with Morty at the bar and you just felt something was happening. Everyone’s talking, having a great time partying and all of a sudden, Frank Sinatra appears through the door with his lovely wife Barbara, and there he is! Silver hair, blue eyes, beautiful suit, walks in and everybody is just beaming! When Frank walked into a room, you knew it! I was 18. Very amazing.
I never thought I would get to say “Hello” to him that night, but Jilly came to the bar and said: Come on over, I want to introduce you to Frank! I said: He doesn’t want to meet me! I walk over with Jilly. I didn’t want to say I was from Hoboken, because at that time, Hoboken wasn’t as grand as it is today. If you came from Hoboken, Frank didn’t really want to know you. I didn’t let that part of my life out to him at that moment. Jilly brings me over and says: Frank, I want to introduce you to a friend of mine, Johnny Pizza, he takes care of all the limousines for all the entertainers. He goes: Oh, glad to know you! It was really nice to look him straight in the eyes. We kidded around a little bit and then of course, you get involved in other conversations, but that was my first moment of meeting Frank Sinatra.
As the time would pass, at any time Jilly was appearing with Frank anywhere, he would call me and say: John, come to the event, stay with me, stay backstage, because you never know when we need something last minute. Now, to try to get on Frank’s roster of limousines at 21 would have been insane, but I was always kept in the background with Jilly as his ace in the whole. If they needed something, I was there. Hey, Jilly, I need this! Johnny Pizza could facilitate that for him. Those were my early beginnings of trust, being around these people and doing what they needed. Jilly opened that door for me and I’m forever grateful. Amazing time.
Were you nervous the first time you met Mr. Sinatra?
No, I really wasn’t. I believe that people are people. Same thing when I met presidents, when I walked up I was just being me. I think if you have a certain fright and you’re nervous about meeting someone, you tend to put your foot in your mouth. In my early days growing up, I never looked at a person larger than they really were. I looked at them as just another human being. Frank Sinatra was another human being. A fascinating one. But of course, it was an amazing moment to be introduced to somebody of that caliber, it was exciting.
What does Frank Sinatra mean to you?
Frank was remarkable. I don’t want to say that he taught me a lot of things, but seeing that he was a guy who came from very humble beginnings and made something out of his life sort of gave me that same ambition, to go out there and be something and do something with my life. Not to just be a part of the crowd, but stand out and be somebody special. As I grew older and learned more about Frank Sinatra, I had more of an admiration for him in the things that he accomplished. Now, many times you hear the negative things, but sometimes people are just looking for the things that are wrong in others. Some said to me: How can you work alongside a guy that’s not as nice to people? And I asked them: How can you say that, did you ever have a bad experience with him? And of course they would say „No” and that would shut them right up.
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Semnat de Corina Stoica, Paul Leslie