10 Years: That's Amore
"When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza
That's Joe's Italian Kitchen.
It's also amore, as restaurateur Joe Cafaro celebrates his 10th year in business in Boone."Well, it went by pretty quick," he said. "I can't believe I've been putting that key in the door for 10 years."
That particular door is located on Boone Heights Drive, home to a restaurant that's known for its comfort food, right from the recipes of Cafaro's family, passed down through generations in Italy.
"I'm sitting here, looking around at all the nostalgia - family pictures, all the organizations we support," Cafaro said, gesturing to the eatery's walls that have nary an open space.
What started out as a collection of family photos and collages of Cafaro's favorite personalities (the men's room is unforgettable) has expanded into a veritable display of community spirit.
"We've got two huge walls of plaques and certificates and recognitions for things we do in the community," Cafaro said, mentioning Appalachian State University drama, the American Red Cross and soccer, softball and baseball leagues. "Just look at it all. In 10 years, we've accumulated quite a bit."That includes fans, most of whom don't even need to glance at the menu. Joe's homemade spicy crab soup, for instance, isn't even on there.
"We put it here in the restaurant 10 years ago, it's never been on the menu, and we have it every single day," he said. "People buy it by the quart - in the dead of summer."
To Cafaro, it makes perfect sense.
"You've got to make food taste good, you've got to give people a reason to want it," he said. "If it doesn't taste right, no one's going to order it."
It didn't take long for Cafaro to learn this. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was taught to cook by his parents, Helen and the late Tony Cafaro.
"I stood around and watched all the time," Cafaro said. "On Sundays, we'd go to my grandmother's in the city in Manhattan, spend a day there, watch her cook, and sometimes we'd have meals in my uncle's restaurant. My Uncle Sammy had a deli around the corner from Macy's with a big kitchen, and I'd be in there helping them."
But he credits his folks for teaching him one of Joe's Italian Kitchen's signature dishes - Tony's homemade meatballs. From opening day in August 2000 to Tony's death in 2010, Joe's father would hand-roll the meatballs each and every day, much to his customers' joy and satisfaction.
"Dad passed away this year and left me with the duty of making meatballs," he said. "So, that's five generations handed down, family member to family member. The meatballs - I can't tell you what makes them so good. I can only tell you they're made with love, and we've been doing them forever."Forever's a long time, but not such a problem when recipes are timeless. Joe's Italian Kitchen is, essentially, a throwback to the Italian delis of yesteryear. In fact, that's how it started, as a strictly takeaway restaurant. That didn't last for long.
"They decided they'd rather sit and eat in," Cafaro said. "The menu back when we first opened was one page long. It's grown quite a bit, and we went to eight pages at one point."Now they're down to a more manageable number, but still surprisingly open.
"People come in, they can ask us for stuff, and we'll have it," Cafaro said. "We have all the ingredients. We do food right - that's the bottom line."
And again, it goes back to his childhood in New York.
"Back home, you could walk down a street in Brooklyn and smell everybody's gravy," he said. "For those who don't understand what that is, it's basically marinara sauce with sausage, braciole, porkbones, neckbones - all put into a big pot of tomato sauce, and we call it gravy.
"You could walk down a street, going to church, and smell all this coming from the houses. You'd walk into a family deli, a salumeria, and enjoy all those smells."
At one point, Joe's carried groceries typical of an old-fashioned salumeria, but competition from grocery chains took a bite out of sales. He still sells a full line of deli items - cold cuts, cheeses, sausages - and takes pride in having never cut corners.
"We're never going to a lesser quality," he said, even in the face of an economic recession. "We just tighten our belts and give you the best quality we can give you."
However, it all comes down to one simple recipe.
"Tradition," Cafaro said. "We're about family. We've actually watched people get engaged here, then bring their kids here, watching them start families. Ten years here, we've seen that growth, that history developing. We've had people come here at Christmastime, when they cut their tree, come here afterward and say this is their family tradition.
"And that's what we do here. Tradition. It's very important."
The 10-year anniversary celebration starts in August, and Cafaro's already cooking up some surprises. Visit http://www.joesitaliankitchen.com for updates.
Joe's Italian Kitchen is located at 190 Boone Heights Drive. For more information, call (828) 263-9200.
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