Frank Sinatra raised over a billion dollars through his lifetime through charities. I don’t know any multi-millionaires trying to do that to that magnitude. And he didn’t even get a „thank you!” Frank didn’t want a lot of people to know what he was doing and a lot of those checks that were sent out to charities, to the people that were down on their luck, never knew it was from Frank. So Sinatra really gave me a good base to strive for better. Alongside my parents, of course, they were the first ones who gave me that good ambition, they are the rock of where I am today. But seeing someone else from the little home town you’re from become somebody like Frank Sinatra – that’s pretty neat to aspire to. And I aspired that my whole life. I wasn’t going to be a singer or a comedian, but I enjoyed the transportation, so I was the best transportation coordinator that money could buy at the time.
When and how did you actually start working for Frank Sinatra?
I had my business and I didn’t actually work for him, I worked for his organization. When they needed something to be done, they hired myself along with another 20 people. When they realized that my word is my word and the trust value was built. When they would come into town, I was always the third, the fourth limousine that was being brought on for that transportation need. Never ever getting to drive Frank as his personal driver, because he had his own guys that were 20 and 30 years with him, I was always in the entourage of the transportation. Although, that’s where the business and the friendship became different. I was no longer just coming on to the event as a driver, I was brought as a friend, and when the time occurred, I was right there to take care of transportation. It was a unique situation. Everywhere Frank went, he had a different driver. And you were a part of the entourage. So, at different times, when other limousine drivers were not available, that’s how you would become the next guy in line.
We know that at some point, apart from the transportation service, you also started to provide security services. How did that happen?
See, when you’re in that circle, you’re not just doing one thing. I happen to know how to cook. My grandmother was a great Italian cook. When I was a little boy running around on those streets of Hoboken, there were all these little restaurants. In Hoboken, you didn’t bring a bag of lunch to school, your parents would give you 50 cents to go buy a sandwich at the local restaurant. I was not the only one, it was all the kids who had a dollar or so, it was 40 cents for the sandwich and a nickel or dime for the soda. You would have a different sandwich every day and all that was intriguing to me, and I love to cook. It’s those early beginnings in Hoboken, that gave me the roundabout of having so many different facets of what you can do in this lifetime, whether it be body-guarding, transportation, food, I was also in the funeral industry for several years, and I was in the flower business… If you think about it, all of these different business tie together. And growing up in Hoboken, with German, Italian, Spanish food, there were all these wonderful smells and I was intrigued by that. My grandparents would show me how to cook as a kid and when I got into school, I would go to different eateries and clean dishes for them after school. As I was cleaning the dishes, they would be preparing the food for the next day, and I kept my eyes open. I would ask the chef: What do you do? Most of those chefs were little old ladies, they weren’t chefs with big white hats.
With that seguing back into the Sinatra era, here I was, involved with the transportation end of that, Jilly calling me up to be at the different events. When we would go down to Atlantic City, some of these beautiful hotels, on certain levels of their private rooms, they had kitchens for the people to be served. Jilly would call me and say: Hey, John, come on down! What I would do was bring all the foods from Hoboken – fresh Italian bread, cans of tomatoes, different vegetables. At any given moment, we would be in a hotel on the 19th floor. There was a stove in the hallway where the service elevators were. So I would be in the hallway, chopping garlic, sauteing onions, adding tomatoes, and all of these aromas going throughout the hotel. Now, mind you, I was cooking for Frank Sr., Jilly and the family, any of the entourage, all of these people would pop into Frank’s room at any given time and if he was eating something, he was offering them to sit down and eat with him. I was 21-22 years old, creating these gastronomic flavors that were pumping through the entire building. At some point, the entertainment director of the hotel came up the elevator and said: Johnny, I just want to thank you for your cooking, all the restaurants are packed tonight, they’re all smelling your food going throughout the building and everyone’s making reservations!
For how many years were you near Frank Sinatra?
Well, again, it wasn’t how many years I was with him. It started back when I was 18 years old and I was introduced to him and from that moment on we’ve known each other, we’ve been friends, and whether it was for business or pleasure. I flew out to the Sinatra Golf Tournaments in Palm Springs when they had that, it was just a nice friendship. It was camaraderie. That’s what it was between all of those people who would be around Frank, like Tom Dreesen or Elizabeth Taylor.
What would you say you admired the most in Frank Sinatra?
He was a man of his word. If Frank liked you, he would look you in the eye, if he didn’t like you, he had no use for you whatsoever. And he was very good knowing that. In the peripheral way that I knew Frank, I could see the people that really wanted to know him because he was such a larger than life personality. They didn’t want to know him as a person, whereas with myself, coming from Hoboken, I’m a straight shooter. When I like somebody, I either like them or I don’t, because you can sort of tell if somebody’s being there in your corner and they’re really there and not in your corner. Frank had that sense and, through the years, I got to feel that with other people. There were people who wanted to know Frank just for the bragging rights. He recognized that.
I was very lucky to be around him, to be allowed to be there in the same room with him. See, when you’re around people like this, they know every single person in the room, and if you don’t belong in that room, you’re not there. The remarkable things I’ve experienced, that Frank was admirable to, was his sixth sense of knowing when people were good and when they weren’t. He was able to not be phony, he had a way of enjoying the hard-working people. He didn’t want to be around the multi-million dollar magnates, the hotel owners or someone who was worth 100 million dollars. He wanted to be around Joe down the street who was working hard as a brick-layer, or the people that were doing something good for life, not saying that the business owners weren’t doing good for life, but he wanted to be around – this is my interpretation, mind you – people who were real people. If he was in a restaurant, he wanted to know the owner, if the waiter came and was a really nice person, Frank sensed that, and he and the waiter or waitress got very friendly. You could see there was a beautiful bond between two human beings, whether they were famous or working in a restaurant making hell knows how many dollars an hour. It was nice to see that spectrum collide.
You mentioned Elizabeth Taylor earlier in our conversation. Please tell us about her, how was she?
Very first time meeting Elizabeth Taylor. Las Vegas, 1987. Frank Sinatra is working the two rooms New Year’s Eve weekend at the Riviera Hotel. Everybody who was anybody was in town. Of course, everything is sold out and packed, there’s a stir in Las Vegas. Sinatra was doing a private show for the ultra VIPs of the Riviera Hotel, upstairs in the private showroom, which maybe held about 100 people. Full orchestra upstairs and an additional 30 piece orchestra downstairs, taking care of about 5,000 people. Frank Sinatra opened the evening downstairs in the ballroom, with Joey Villa as the comedian, and Pia Zadora doing their acts. Meanwhile Sinatra is downstairs, Pia Zadora is entertaining upstairs. Pia Zadora got done, Joey Villa went and got started with his act, and so on and so forth.
It happened to be December the 30th and it was my birthday. Here we are, after these two shows, everybody’s running around, in the middle of the pandemonium of this wonderful evening. We’re in Christopher’s restaurant and of course the tables are all set up – Frank always had a table set up like it was The Last Supper, it was 40 or 50 people. And then you also had the other key-tables – I always sat at an external table with my other security people, we knew our places, we let the others have the fun that they wanted.
It was 2:30 in the morning, everyone’s having dinner, laughing and drinking champagne. I didn’t know anybody else knew it was my birthday other than the other security guys that I was there with. And all of a sudden, Frank stands up and says: Ladies and gentleman, I want to wish a good friend of mine tonight a very happy birthday! And I’m looking around the room, thinking who else had the birthday just like mine? (laughs) And he goes: Johnny, have a happy birthday! And everybody starts to sing „Happy Birthday” and with that, Elizabeth Taylor walks out with the cake on a cart. That was the first time I met her.
Elizabeth Taylor was a beautiful, beautiful human being, getting to know her slightly, because she got older as we all did, the times I was able to be in her presence was remarkable. She was a fun person to sit across the table from. Her beautiful violet eyes were just mesmerizing to look into and to have her in the conversation was memorable. She was fun, she was loving and you felt that she really wanted to be talking to you. She went out of her way to be very nice and I think that was just her being her. That was the difference of the people that I was able to be around all my life. Everybody was just being themselves, that’s what made these people so individual. They brought something very special of themselves, they brought their hearts, and they brought their souls to whatever it was they were involved with, whether it was they were having dinner or having a show. Elizabeth was really neat to meet.
I got to meet her many times after that, in Los Angeles, at private dinners, we’d run into each other at Chasen’s. Going out to dinner in L.A., one night here we were, years later after that event I told you about, we’re sitting there with Al Martino and his lovely wife Judy, Tino Barzie, and who comes walking by but Elizabeth Taylor with then husband Larry Fortenski. As she walked by the table, she said „Hello” to the people I was with and then she said: Hi, John, how are you doing? I couldn’t have felt bigger than life! They all went like: How do you know Elizabeth? It was a monumental moment to me, just having dinner with my family and friends.
You were saying about all these people you met that they never tried to be anything else than what they truly were. But the celebrity world is known for being so superficial and many celebrities are known for always trying to actually do quite the opposite, to seem something that they’re not, in order to be admired. How do you see things?
I can answer you that probably in one sentence: that’s the difference between a celebrity and a star. We’re talking about Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, people that are really superstars! They’ve made a mark on earth, they’re known around the globe by their first name. Maybe not in today’s world, where the younger generation has no idea who 90 % of these people were. In today’s world there’s no interaction with the yesteryear, because they are so focused on what’s in front of them only. And everybody is trying to be somebody and get somewhere. Whereas, the people that I was around in that era, they were already there, they didn’t have to prove who they were, they got out and did their thing. That was the difference of their individuality and their uniqueness. They didn’t have to try and imitate another celebrity. You didn’t have to sound like Frank Sinatra or Paul Anka.
Sadly, Frank Sinatra, Jr. is no longer with us, but I like to keep his name out there. I was hoping you could tell us, who was this man?
Frank Sinatra Jr.? Well, that could be another five hour conversation. I had the privilege of getting to know him very, very closely. When he asked me to come work with him, that very first time in Las Vegas, that one week invite was very pleasant. It worked out lovely, we hit it off very well. I had known Frank Jr. peripherally years before, but I never really got to know him, because he did not hang out in the same circles that his father did. Frank Jr. really stayed with his guys. He had his group of band members.
I was introduced to him many times and it was a nice “Hello, how are you, nice to see you again, John,” but it never really went anywhere, as I was really busy with his father. Years later, as I kidded with Frank Jr., having dinner just the two of us, I said: You know, all of those years that I spent around your father, I never got the chance to know you as good as we know each other now. And he said to me: John, my father had a lot of people around him and every one of them had their own story. I never got involved with all the external people around my father and I feel bad that we never really got to know each other before my father’s passing.
The Frank Sinatra, Jr. that I knew was an amazing man. He was underestimated by people. He was an intelligent individual, a loving person, and he did as much as he could for people. I’ve seen him as generous as his father to those who needed help and he helped so many people do so many things with their lives and giving them a lift up to where they needed to be. A genuine guy, a man of his word.
He never got out of the background of his father’s spotlight, and that was really sad, because he was a good singer in his own right. Some of the albums that he created that I was involved with, I could see in the studio the love he had for the music. It’s unfortunate the world didn’t get to know Frank Jr. as they did his father. Frank Jr. had so many opportunities to be something bigger than just a singer. He loved to fly, he should have been a master pilot. He loved the industry, he could be flying on a plane and see another plane through the window, and he could tell you all about this other plane.
As I got to know him further and further, I realized how intelligent he was! He was very, very astute in knowing everything about music, industry, the making of the songs. He was there when those people recorded those songs, not only his father, but the Ella Fitzgeralds and the Nat King Coles. Frank was a little boy welcomed into those circles as they were recording in the studio. He should have been the historian of the American Songbook. I think the world lost an individual who could have given so much more insight and information about the times that he was a part of.
Also, his elocution was magnificent. He was a flawless narrator! I told him: Frank, you missed your calling, you should be out there telling the American Songbook story!
I think Frank Sinatra, Jr. was such a wonderful individual and he never got the chance to be a superstar like his dad was. He had everything that could have been something, if it was in a different business than singing.
So you started this friendship with him right after Frank, Sr. passed?
Yes, after that week in Las Vegas, I believe it was in August 2000. In October I got a phone call from him, saying: John, they loved my show so much, they’re inviting me back and I need you again, are you available? I said Yes. Then I got a phone call about a show in Caesars, Lake Tahoe for New Year’s Eve. And that night he told me: John, I’ve been offered to do a tour of my father’s music in the next six months and I would like to have you on board, if you could do that. I told him to let me look into some things that I had going on in Las Vegas at the time. At the end of the New Year’s Eve show, we’re all in his suite, having cocktails, celebrating, and Frank said to me: Well, John, I need to know if you could come and do this tour with me, because I don’t know how I can do it without you. I turned to him and I said: Well, Frank, I happen to be available! That six months tour turned out to be eight years on the road with Frank Sinatra Jr.
And in all this time, you took care of pretty much everything?
Yes. I had to move from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to take that position and not only was I on the road with him, but in Los Angeles, every single day of the week we were working on projects, we were talking about different songs – not that he listened to what I suggested, but we used to talk about it. The phone would ring saying they wanted Frank Jr. We didn’t say “Yes” to all of them, there were certain shows that were selected.
Frank’s entourage was quite an entourage as well. He had a lot of his men in the orchestra for 30 years! Bob Chmel, his drummer, Paulie Rostock, his bass player, Terry Anthony and of course, Terry Woodson, the conductor – we had all of these people who toured everywhere with us. So we had to make sure we had travel arrangements. We had a travel coordinator, but once we got out on the road, then I would put my hat on. From that moment on, I took over with many of the things that Frank needed as well as the orchestra people.
My phone number became sort of like 411, anything that they needed to be done, who would they call? They’d call Johnny Pizza. My phone would ring off the hook, whether it would be my cell-phone or the hotel phone, there were times when three or four phones were going off at the same time. “Johnny, I need this! Johnny, I need that!” and I had to go and make sure those things were facilitated. That took so much pressure off Frank Jr., because of that time he didn’t have anybody to take care of all of that. I became what they called “the fixer.” Frank used to joke around with that. In London, they used to call people who were doing what I was doing “the fixer,” so our inside joke was “Here’s Johnny, Johnny the fixer” or “Where’s the fixer?” That was nice and I have to tell you, it’s still amazing to hear, after he passed away so tragically, that Frank said “Johnny Pizza was the best road manager I ever had.” He also said that when he was alive and I used to joke about that, and he would say: “No, no, John, you were the best road manager I ever had.” That was something really nice to hear. After he passed away, I heard that from so many people. It’s a nice memory to have of someone that you adored as a person.
In the years that you were managing the security aspect of these important people, were there any moments where you felt danger?
One word: no. I have to tell you, it was kind of funny, because I often thought about when would that moment be. Through all of the years, I have never been in a position where somebody overstepped their bounds around these people. Most times when the everyday people that are coming to visit these celebrities and superstars, they’re in a joyous mode. People were living in a happier time, they were coming to something joyous, they were getting to meet their idol, and the superstars never had a worry of being stalked. Of course, you needed that security for the sake of whenever that time may have shifted, but we didn’t really see those times back then.
Today is a different time. Walking down the street, a regular everyday person has to worry about getting shot at for no reason, not because they have jewelry on or they’re wealthy. We’re living in very difficult times. Those days, the celebrities didn’t have to worry about somebody attacking them or doing something odd. They were having a good time meeting their idols, and second of all, they got a look at the four guys around that star. I was never in the situation of feeling threatened.
So you’re saying someone like Frank Sinatra was able to go into a restaurant and people wouldn’t get hysterical?
Well, of course, when Frank Sinatra was going into a restaurant, it was predetermined. It was never where he just got out of his car in New York, L.A. or Las Vegas and say: OK, let’s go to this restaurant! Every time we would go for dinner, it was prearranged that the restaurant knew we were coming.
One of his favorite restaurants was Patsy’s in New York City, in Manhattan, and they always knew that he was coming, he had his private room upstairs and even a private stairway to go up. People wouldn’t even see the guest coming into the restaurant. Patsy’s has the greatest Italian food in New York. The chef would come up from downstairs and he was in awe of bringing Frank his plate of dinner, his veal Milanese.
So, no, there was never a time when we felt threatened. Sure, there were times when people would come to the table unannounced, but you treated them with caution, and the person who made that most simple was the entertainer. People would walk up to Frank, they would shake his hand and they just wanted to say “hello,” they loved his music and he was as gracious as any of the entertainers I’ve seen in my life welcome their fans. There were a couple along the way that weren’t as gracious, I won’t mention any names, but then again, they were just celebrities, they weren’t superstars.
Johnny Pizza and Drew Barrymore. Brentwood, California
You’ve also worked in the security field, but for politicians. Did any dangerous situation arise in their case?
I was briefly involved in the political field in Nevada with the Lieutenant Governor. That was nice to be a part of, I was doing body-guarding and personal assisting. At that point it was a different group of people, not that I didn’t feel comfortable, I did, but I just realized I liked the entertainment side of it better.
I was able to meet President Reagan at the Saint Ann’s festival that occurs every year in July. I was a youngster, 18 years old, we were in the Saint Ann’s church, we were thinking of the entertainers that we would invite for the next year and I kiddingly said: Well, why don’t we have the President come? He’s touring and he’s doing all his campaigning. And everybody laughed at me. The pastor and I went upstairs and we had the letter drawn up, we sent it to the White House, not telling anybody and not ever expecting the President’s phone call to say that he’s coming to Hoboken! So that’s how I got to meet the President the first time.
You’ve met him several times?
Yes, I was invited to his funeral as well, that was really special, to be thought of one of 400 people in the world to go to a presidential funeral. But getting back to the Saint Ann’s festival, he came to that and who do you think he had out of the limousine with him? Frank Sinatra! It was the first time Frank Sinatra was back in Hoboken in many, many years publicly. That was a coup for all of us that not only the President came, but he also brought his best friend Sinatra. It was a very touching time for me to be a part of.
Years later, here we are sitting in a restaurant in California, with some other celebrities – Martha Raye was there, Al Martino and his wife, Lucille Ball, Sammy Davis. The Reagans came in and they went from table to table and – another clandestine moment – they said: Hi, John, how are you doing? I was floored! (laughs)
But your involvement in the political area was only brief.
Yes, it was only briefly for the Lieutenant Governor Lorraine Hunt, a lovely human being, I learned a lot from her. You learn a lot from everybody.
We saw pictures of you along with other politicians, for example, Hillary and Bill Clinton. Where did you meet them?
Yes, those are a few pictures from a Hollywood salute to Bill Clinton. It was honoring Hillary Clinton for her run for the Senate in New York. That was back in August of 2000. This particular party was held at my family’s home and we hosted that evening for Hillary Clinton to the tune of 2,000 people on the front lawn.
What do you mean in your family’s home?
Well, the home I’m referring to is the Robert Taylor ranch, which was previously owned by Robert Taylor, my cousin owned it up until his death, two years ago. This particular home is the last piece of property in all of Los Angeles County that in the Santa Monica Mountains was 112 acres. It was a ranch with horses and all types of animals. Robert Taylor built this house back in the late 60s. Our family acquired it in 1974 and my cousin owned KROQ radio station, and that opened up the door to a lot of charity parties and things like that. My cousin was very philanthropic, every time there was somebody in need, he would open up his door to them and the ranch was the setting for all of these major events.
Sometimes, when these large events would take place, they would need a lot of security. Of course, there was the outside security that was hired, but for the actual property, I was in charge of making sure the security was intact. I was the man they came to regarding details of the property. When the Secret Service came to the ranch, we walked around the property and they would ask me questions and I gave them all the inside information.
My family had these events with 2,000 or 3,000 people outside. It was a very interesting time – how many people can say they had the President and the First Lady in their house for dinner? It wasn’t only President Clinton, it was also President Reagan and his wife Nancy, they came to one of the events, they were aware of the property and my family. Then again, we go back to everybody knowing each other, having friendly moments with each other. It really is like living in a little city where everybody knows everybody.
I can remember when I was 23, I was cooking in the kitchen of this large estate, I was cooking these Italian zeppoles (fried doughnuts), and I had all of the dough on the counter waiting for it to rise. Jilly was coming over, I hear the buzzer at the Intercom, the server opens up the gate, there comes the car and with Jilly there was singer Al Martino! “Hi, John, it’s nice to see you. I heard a lot about your cooking and I can’t wait to enjoy it.” We became very good friends through the years, we celebrated different holidays together. I’m still very much in touch with his wife Judy and his daughter, Alison Martino, who has a magnificent following in Los Angeles. She is the historian of Beverly Hills, documenting the place.
Speaking of Beverly Hills, living there is a man we’ve seen a photo of you with. A man considered the most iconic, legendary living actor. Jack Nicholson.
Oh, Jack! (laughs)
What’s he like to be around?
Jack is Jack, you know? (smiles) Like I said, these superstars are individual. And Jack is just Jack (impersonating Jack Nicholson). It was nice getting to know Jack on some of these occasions, he’s been to our home and again, meeting these guys in restaurants afterwards, you’re not just walking by saying a short “hello.” You become friends and you get to know these people.
Jack was quite an interesting guy. You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth next. When Jack was around, it was always a fun night, everyone was enjoying themselves, having a good time.
Yes, he comes up with some good one-liners, very dry, some of them were off-color and funny. That was the fun of being around these people. You heard different things about them from the magazines, but I lived it. I heard it out of their mouths and some stories were over the top funny.
There’s another picture of you with an iconic personality, Meryl Streep. How is she?
She’s not only one of the greatest American actresses, but there are so many wonderful people out there and she really rises to the top. I met Meryl twice, not that she would know me today, so many years later. She’s another star that when a fan walks up to her, she’s as gracious as if she knew them forever. She’s a real human being, she’s not ostentatious. What a lovely person! When I walked away from meeting her the first time, I said „Wow!” She left a mark on me as a true caring individual, and that’s what shines in all of these people. I think that’s why the fans love them so much, because they get to see that. For some reason, I think that everybody in their own has their way of looking at people. And I think that everybody has a good sonar. People get to feel a good vibe, and when someone puts out a real vibe, people that get it and they know how to accept that vibe.
Meryl Streep was one of those people I was happy to know briefly. She is an all-around beautiful individual. And what was she doing? She was raising money for a charity. Lending her name and her face to the thousands of people that lined up to say „hello” to her. She was there doing the thing that she was in the business to do. Graciously! You could see that she was there lovingly to do it!
Tell us about the Hoboken Café. How did this chapter in your life begin?
Many people come into the restaurant today and they don’t know what a Hoboken cafe is. They walk through the door and they ask: What is this, what is a Hoboken cafe? I tell them Hoboken is a little city in New Jersey and we’re bring the illustrious foods from that area. We’re bringing the real authentic foods from Hoboken to Marietta, Georgia. A lot of people ask me how I got here and I tell them I came here by accident. (laughs)
What happened exactly?
I had the Hoboken Cafe in Las Vegas for about two years. In that period I had a lot of free time on my hand, so I opened up the cafe because I’ve always had a love affair with food. Having free time, that afforded me to do that. As I got busy with my body-guarding and transportation coordinating, it started to take more of my time, so I closed the cafe in Las Vegas willingly. Fast-forward so many years later from my Las Vegas days, here I was brought back to Marietta, where my family has resided for over 30 years.
Unfortunately, my mother had suffered a stroke and at the time Frank Jr.’s career was slowing down a little bit and our busy schedule wasn’t as busy as it once was. So I said to Frank: You know, my mom is a little ill right now and I would spend some time with her. Doctors only gave her four months to live in July 2008 and she’s still with us today. We took her home and gave her the best family care that I don’t think you can find in any institution. She gets along a little rough here and there, because she’s not able to walk anymore, but we get her out doing the same things as she did before she had the stroke. We take her out to dinner, we have relatives that come to visit, we take her out to see friends, so her life has only changed in the effect in that she can’t walk. That shouldn’t put somebody in a 6 x 6 room for the rest of their lives.
After that six months period had passed, and I did go out with Frank on a couple of one night shows, I said to him: I think I’m going to have to retire at this point. The engagements are slowing down, I see it as a good opportunity for both of us to be able to continue with what we need in both of our lives. If you need me to go out on the road, I will be there when I can. I decided to uproot myself from Los Angeles and I moved to Marietta to get my mother care. That was eight years ago.
You need to have something to do, I was starting to get a little stir crazy – you know, having such a life, jumping on airplanes every single day of the year, to going abruptly to sitting in a house 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for three of those years! I told my business partner: I think it’s time to open something up and give Marietta a taste of what it was to live in Hoboken, New Jersey gastronomically.
For years, whenever we would come to Marietta, all we heard was how you can’t find the New Jersey Italian stuff like you get in New York City, you can’t find the gourmet bread, the crusty bread, you can’t find sausage, and you can’t find the fresh mozzarella cheese. I know how to do all that! I learned it as a kid when I was 12 in this lovely town called Hoboken, New Jersey. What I decided to do, along with my business partner Roger Diaz, was to open the Hoboken Cafe. We’re bringing authentic Italian foods to Marietta, Georgia. The fresh mozzarella cheese, which is made in house…
The best mozzarella cheese!
You’ve had it, it’s as delicious as it will ever be.
And you make it yourself, it’s important to mention.
I love to do it! Just like a singer gets out and sings in front of the microphone, I sink my hands into that hot water and I pull my fresh mozzarella from it being a curd into this delicious delicate cheese, fresh mozzarella cheese. Which has a life of its own, it’s only got a one day availability to have the milky delicious substance. Once you refrigerate it, it becomes just like the store-bought mozzarella. Although it’s still good, it doesn’t have the punch and the texture and the creaminess as it does when it comes out of the hot water that first 12 hours. That’s what we bring to the table: when you sit down at Hoboken Cafe on Whitlock, you get a taste of that fresh cheese within the first 12 hours of it being made. When you taste this cheese and the delicious cream melts in your mouth, it’s just over the top.
We’ve just celebrated our third year. We didn’t think we would make it one year, but here we are, having all these wonderful people coming back. In the restaurant business it’s really tough, you open up and in six months or a year, you can’t sustain being open. There’s such a turnover of employees nowadays, you go in, you finally get comfortable with the restaurant, with the server that knows what you like, you go there the next time and they’re gone! You have to retrain somebody how you want to eat. I think that’s one of the biggest problems in restaurants today. You go there, you know who the chef is and what he’s going to be cooking, and if the chef isn’t there.
You know, that chef is an artist, just like a singer! I could give five people my recipe of chicken Francese and I guarantee you you’ll have five different chicken Francese, because each individual chef is an artist and has a technique. I think that’s why the cafe here in Marietta brings the authentic Hoboken style, because I’m at that stove every morning, creating the sauces, the great marinara sauce that goes on the chicken parmesans.
We’ve become famous for our meatballs! I sound like an ad, but we bring something to the plate that’s not in many other establishments. Something unique. Our meatballs have become the No.1 selling item in the menu because people keep coming back for them. They must be good! That along is just like hearing from Frank Sinatra Jr. „John was the best road manager I ever had.” When I hear my guest coming through the door and they see Roger and I putting our all into this restaurant, and we see people returning and bringing friends and smiling and having a great experience, not only with the food, but also the camaraderie. They start talking to each other, next thing you know, they’re having desert with each other! We’re bringing people together in our restaurant and that’s so satisfying for us to witness.
What do you see yourself doing in the next years? When you close your eyes and you think about the future, what do you see?
I couldn’t answer that. When I was 21 years old, I never in my life would have thought I’d be sitting across the table from the likes of Frank Sinatra. I never thought I’d be sitting across the table from the likes of the President of the United States, or flying in a private jet for the first time of my life when I was 21 years old. For me to predict where I might be tomorrow… I couldn’t give you an answer, let alone a year or two or three!
That’s what life is, it’s fascinating, you don’t know where it’s going to bring you, if you get up and get out and live it. That’s what I try to share with everybody that I know: get out and do the best you can with life and experience it! You know, Jackie Mason used to say something funny: You can’t be a hit in an empty building! You need an audience. The comedians, the singers all need an audience. The people reading this interview and listening to this show, they’re the audience and without them, we wouldn’t be here right now.
Everybody out there who has any ambition of something that they love to do, don’t say „No!” Go do it! Do what you love, do what’s in your heart. When I go into that restaurant every morning, it’s not work. When I went on traveling around the globe, I didn’t wake up every morning thinking: Oh, my God, I gotta get on the airplane again! No, I said: Oh, great, we’re going to do the next show!
I love doing what I do, and I think that if you love what you do, you’ve got it made. Go and grab the gold ring of your dreams, don’t think it’s not possible or you’re not capable. I’m living proof: I’m a little boy from Hoboken that came from very humble beginnings – my father was a school teacher, my mother was a banker – we didn’t have many things as a kid. But the world is outside your door. Go after it! I did and I was able to get somewhere in life. If you have something you want to do, don’t be afraid, go do it! If you don’t know how to do it, find people that know how to do it to help you get where you want to be.
But, since you mentioned fear, what do you do when you’re afraid about the future, about everything that life will bring your way? What was your solution against fear?
I didn’t have fear! Again, when you’re 21, 31 or 41, you’re not looking at fear, you’re looking at your future, at your destiny, and you’re looking at what you can conquer next. The first car I bought was an old shebang limousine, it was 15 years old, but I was able to buy that 15 year-old car that because I scraped up every last penny I made when I was delivering newspapers as a kid. I saved it to put into this dream of mine. It was $1,800 all those years. I realize that if I hadn’t taken that $1,800 that was sitting in my bank account, I may never have followed my dream, ever. If you take the first step, that’s the biggest. Take it! Don’t be afraid! There is nothing to be afraid of. If you’re doing things honestly and for the good of others, there’s nothing to be afraid of. They throw you in the water, you gotta swim, you know? (laughs) I jumped in the water, I wasn’t thrown! (laughs harder)
Go live and enjoy life, that’s what it’s all about. There can be a lot of hurdles for people out there, things aren’t always good, and we have highs and lows in our lives. But I always keep this in the back of my mind: When you’re going through hell, keep going! You’ll get through it. If it’s raining today, it’s not going to rain every day. I look at my life, what it was then to what it is now, and I see I have a great business. Roger and I opened this cafe, we didn’t know what it was going to take, and maybe the people of Marietta would say: What are these people, crazy? They’re Yankees, get outta here! But they didn’t, they embraced us, after they realized that we were bringing something good to them.
You can’t be afraid of life, you gotta go after it and conquer it.
What is the best thing about being Johnny Pizza?
I was in Las Vegas one day and we were driving down in a limousine on the Millennium. It was 1999 going into 2000, in a limousine going from the New York, New York Hotel to the Bellagio, where my family was staying. We had just walked out of the door from Barbra Streisand’s Millennium concert, which was absolutely over the top. We were in the car, in bumper to bumper traffic. We could have walked from the MGM to Bellagio in 10 minutes, but we had limousines taking everybody where they had to go. We’re in the limousine three hours! And it just so happens, all the people are all lined up in the street and everyone is having a great time, it’s the New Year’s Eve, some were afraid the world was going to stop because all of the computers were going to shut everything off. I’m with my family, it started to get warm in the car, we were stopped in traffic, so I open up the window and there were people yelling „Happy New Year!” A gentleman walking by with his girlfriend yells out to the limousine, looks right into my eyes and goes: „Hey, what do you do, man?” And I said: „I’m doin’ it”! (laughs) That was a funny line. Everyone reminds me of that line to this day.
But what is the best thing about being Johnny Pizza? Just being myself and being able to be the person that I am to myself. I love who I am for myself and I love to be around the people that I’m around. That makes a person enjoy their life. Is it good to be me? I’ve got my ups and downs, everybody does, everybody’s got good things and sad things in life, but just like I said, when you’re going through hell, you keep going, eventually you’ll get out of that. It was great to sit down and talk to you, but that reminds me that’s all yesteryear, it’s all in the past. That’s never going to happen for me again.
You think never?
Look, people grew up in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, the 70s, the 80s and the 90s. None of those eras has ever repeated itself. It’s like lightning in a bottle, you capture it when it happens. My life was lightning in a bottle for those years we’re talking about. I’m living a different life today, I’ve planted a new seed and it’s growing.
That little Hoboken Cafe is a tree now, it’s becoming something, and whether I continue or I decide to put the key in the door tomorrow is a decision I will make someday. But as long as I’m enjoying it, as long as I’m bringing something good to the world, I continue to do it. When it becomes too hard to do, then you stop, and I think that’s with anything in life. I’m not saying life is over because those years are over. It was a fascinating time to live, but the future is what is gonna be, you have to live it first.
Who is Johnny Pizza?
It’s hard for me to say that. Johnny Pizza is a guy that came from very quiet beginnings in Hoboken, New Jersey and made good for himself, had highs and lows and made the best of the lows and made the best of the highs. The Johnny Pizza that I know is a guy that tries to do good for everybody, tries to bring goodness to every surrounding. I try and help people and I try to be the person you dream of being. If I have a chance to help somebody, I’m happy to do that. If I can bring somebody a little joy to themselves, it’s a great place to be. I learned that from my parents, I learned that from Sinatra, from Jilly Rizzo, from a lot of the people that I was around in my entertainment years, people that went through their lives dreaming, never thinking they’d have their dream come true. I was able to witness these other larger than life people facilitate, opening up a door for those people on a large scale. If I can do that for people on a smaller scale, I get the same gratification.
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Photos: courtesy of Mr. Johnny Pizza. Corina Stoica / www.larevista.roSemnat de Corina Stoica, Paul Leslie