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Maplewood Inn: The 60th anniversary of the legendary family-owned Italian restaurant.
by Gabe Donio, Gazette Staff Writer
It has been 60 years since the original Joseph Italiano opened the doors of the legendary Joe Italiano’s Maplewood Inn to customers at the location on the White Horse Pike (Route 30) in Hammonton. During that time, the Italiano family has always been the driving force behind the Maplewood name, putting their dreams, hard work, culinary talent, business sense, creativity and passion into making the Maplewood a destination for people craving authentic Italian food.
During the last six decades, the original Maplewood in Hammonton has been joined by two other incarnations owned by separate members of the Italiano family: the Maplewood II in Mays Landing and the Maplewood III in Vineland. Together, the Italianos and their Maplewood restaurants have perhaps done more to define warm Italian hospitality and signature Italian cuisine in southern New Jersey than any other restaurant.
Their greatest contribution has been the introduction of their signature white seafood sauce pasta dishes, which were originated in Hammonton by Joseph Italiano’s son, Joseph Italiano Jr.
Today, that same Hammonton restaurant is operated by the son of Joseph Italiano Jr., James Italiano, the grandson of the original Joseph Italiano. James Italiano, 42, who is known to nearly everyone as “Jimmy,” works along with his wife Robin. They are continuing and expanding the Maplewood legacy, a legacy Jimmy was already a part of growing up in the business in the 1970s and 1980s.
“It was just a part of our family. I started out on dishes, then I was a busboy . . . We were all young kids. It was a lot of fun in the kitchen, and we gave our dad a lot of headaches. That’s part of the fun of a family business,” Jimmy Italiano said.
Jimmy Italiano is quick to praise his father, Joseph Italiano Jr., who is now 72 years old, for his role as the lynch pin between Maplewood founders Joseph Italiano and his wife Josephine, and the current generation.
“My dad was the driving force behind these restaurants. He had the name and reputation,” Jimmy Italiano said. There were other people, besides Jimmy Italiano’s dad Joe and his mother Eleanor, who were major influences during the last 30 years of the Maplewood in Hammonton, the years that Jimmy Italiano knows best. He recalled two at the top of the list: Frank “Frankie D” DiGerolamo, who was a bartender in the 1980s and 1990s, and Geraldine “Gerri” Monestero.
“I think about the Frankie D’s, the Gerri Monesteros, the Rita Smiths, the Corkey Mazzeos, my father, my brother Joey and watching him cook – he showed me that you can’t just slop food together. These are the people who instilled in me that customers are important, that the family business depended on the customers. It was Frankie D who told me, ‘You better straighten up kid. You got a business here,” Jimmy Italiano said. Monestero and her sister Mary Brunozzi were “a big part of the Maplewood success story. That’s because they cared. These were people who really cared about what they did,” Jimmy Italiano said.
Many of the people who work for the Maplewood, including kitchen staff, wait staff and bartenders have become like a part of the extended Italiano family. They share that sense of caring about the restaurant and serving their customers. Some are so committed to the Maplewood that their children have become employees, creating family legacies within the Italiano family legacy.
“We grew, and we had more employees, but they had that same family commitment,” Jimmy Italiano said.
One of those employees was Mike Savino, who is now the main chef at the Maplewood II. He has worked with the Italianos for about two decades, starting when he was 18.
The Maplewood has been around so long, it is hard to discern where Hammonton’s influence on it begins and where the restaurant’s influence on Hammonton begins. Jimmy Italiano said that, like many large Italian families in Hammonton, there are deep connections that reach out into other local families. Some evenings, the bar and the dining room at the Hammonton restaurant will take on the air of a family reunion.
“It’s a deep Hammonton thing. Our roots branched into a lot of different Hammonton families,” Jimmy Italiano said.
Jimmy Italiano reflected on the connection between Hammonton and the Maplewood, the bond that the town and the restaurant share.
“It means a lot. It’s something you don’t take lightly. It’s something I want to retain for future generations. I want to keep that tradition going for the town of Hammonton. I want the Maplewood to be a part of Hammonton history and make the town better,” Jimmy Italiano said.
Jimmy Italiano’s father Joseph recalled the earliest days of the restaurant.
The origins of the Maplewood in Hammonton began with the dream of Joseph Italiano Sr. The first idea to open up a bar, and eventually a restaurant, came to him while he sat in The Oriole, a bar on Twelfth Street owned by Joseph Berenato.
“My father says, ‘You know what, I spend so much time in a bar, I might as well buy a bar’,” Joseph Italiano Jr. recalled with a laugh.
The elder Joseph Italiano was a constable in 1945, and the town gave him the official task of noticing the public that a bus stop on the White Horse Pike known as the Maplewood was now for sale.
“He had to put a ‘for sale’ sign up on the old Maplewood, the one that burned. It was called the Maplewood Bus Stop. There was a big maple tree in the driveway—it’s gone now—and that’s where the name Maplewood came from. He took on the name and called it the Maplewood Inn,” Joseph Italiano Jr. said.
After purchasing the property in 1945, Joseph and his wife Josephine acquired a liquor license from the town and began serving different kinds of spaghetti and pizza every Friday night. Meatball sandwiches and pepper sandwiches also rounded out some of the original menu.
Joseph Italiano Jr. came out of the United States Navy in 1955, and later took over the operation in the 1960s.
When asked what the secret is for the Maplewood’s long success, Joseph Italiano Jr. gave a simple answer.
“The food. The food hasn’t changed,” Joseph Italiano Jr. said.
Providing the best food and an authentic Italian dining experience to their customers has become a hallmark of the Maplewood. Joseph Italiano Jr. now does it at the Maplewood II, with help from his daughter Linda Italiano during the daytime hours. Jimmy Italiano operates the original Maplewood. The Maplewood III is owned and operated by Howard and Kenny Esposito, relatives of the Italianos through Joseph Italiano Jr.’s sister, Angie.
Joseph Italiano Jr. said being involved with a restaurant so long only happens if you have encouragement.
“You have to like it. You have to feel it. You have to have people working for you that care. The only way you can feel this is that – I’ll go somewhere, and no matter where I go, I’ll see people who tell me how much they enjoyed the place or the food. To me, that’s better than money. It’s such a great feeling. The best part of the whole thing is when you have people from Hammonton come in our place and eat spaghetti, because they all make great sauce themselves. That’s a true compliment, that they would come and eat ours,” Joseph Italiano Jr. said.
The other two Maplewoods that are still connected to the Italiano family carry on the tradition of the original in Hammonton.
“We try to make them the same. About 75 percent of the food is the same, but each place has items that they have only in that location. We try to get a few different items in each place,” Joseph Italiano Jr. said.
What Joseph Italiano Jr. wants to be remembered for, aside from his family, is his commitment to bringing white seafood sauce to the world.
“The white spaghetti trend was started at the Maplewood. When we started, nobody else did it. Now you see it everywhere,” Joseph Italiano Jr. said.
He shared the origin of the delicious sauce.
“I always loved to cook. I was a cook in the Navy. One day, I said to myself, ‘people love seafood, people love spaghetti. I’m going to make a white seafood sauce over spaghetti.’ That’s when I came up with Joe’s Special. It’s shrimp, clams, crabmeat, mussels and scungili in their natural juices with mild olive oil over freshly cooked spaghetti,” Joseph Italiano Jr. said.
At first, he had his doubters, including his own father.
“My father says, ‘You’re nuts. Spaghetti can’t be white. It’s gotta be red. I said, ‘Well, we’re going to try it’.”
It started with six containers of white sauce. Now the restaurants each sell about 100 containers worth a week, Joseph Italiano Jr. said.
History was made, and white seafood dishes became a staple of the Maplewood menu. During the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the restaurant in Hammonton became a huge success. Joseph Italiano said it was – and is – a lot of work, but the Maplewood has helped define him and his family. “It’s a great feeling to see my children participate in it also . . . As tired as you get, and sometimes as disgusted as you get, you have to love it. It becomes a part of you,” Joseph Italiano Jr. said.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Maplewood in Hammonton was a nearly completely family-run business, Jimmy Italiano recalled. “I remember all of us in the old kitchen. My sister Linda would be making salads. I would make appetizers. Tommy helped out, and my brother Joe would be cooking with my dad,” Jimmy Italiano recalled.
Jimmy Italiano’s brother Joe died at age 21 in a car accident in 1980. In the back office, just off the kitchen, a large oil painting of Joe as a boy hangs on the wall.
“He was very popular, my brother. He was my father’s right-hand man . . . It was very hard on mom and dad when he passed, especially when they were growing a business,” Jimmy Italiano said.
Even in the tragedy’s wake, the Italiano family preserved and strengthened, and saw that strength reflected in a business that continued to expand.
After 60 years, the compliments continue to pour in about the excellent food and atmosphere at the Maplewood. In Hammonton, the improvements have increased under Jimmy Italiano. In recent years, the bar has been improved upon, and the entire restaurant has been expanded, upgraded and extensively remodeled. Tradition still remains a hallmark of the Maplewood in Hammonton, though. Those signature salads, garlic bread, loaves of Italian bread on a wooden cutting board, regulars at the bar area and outstanding Italian dishes remain steadfastly constant at the place.
“It’s great hearing all the people’s memories and all the compliments. We’re always hearing good things,” Jimmy Italiano said.
So while a flat panel television hangs over the bar area, the now-famous classic fixture of the Budweiser beer wagon, pulled by those Clydesdale horses still hangs there as well. It’s a throwback, but it seems to fit seamlessly with the Maplewood’s commitment to preserving the past while moving into the future.
In a world increasingly filled with homogeneous chains that claim to reflect the traditions and personality of family-owned restaurants, the Maplewood is a genuine original.
The difference is obvious from the moment a customer opens the door into the snug, dimly lit and convivial bar area, walks into the intimate main dining room, enjoys an outstanding meal and, if they are from Hammonton, sees about 30 people they know each and every time they stop in for dinner or a drink.
“People support us here and are willing to do so much. Even the customers who come here – they’re touching a lot of lives. People can always go other places. But other places, the money goes out of town. This money stays in Hammonton,” Jimmy Italiano said.
Reflecting this personal connection, many of the signature dishes on the menu at the Maplewood Inn are named after family members or customers. Rita’s Crab Cake is named for Rita Smith, an employee since she was 13. Uncle Nino’s, a dish of lobster, Dungeness crab, shrimp and clams over spaghetti is named for Nino “Uncle Neen” Costa. The Eleanor Special is named for Jimmy Italiano’s mother. Robin’s Chicken is named for Jimmy Italiano’s wife. Cousin’s is named after Tommy Italiano and Tom Costa who ran the Maplewood IV in Chesilhurst, which is no longer owned or operated by anyone connected to the Italiano family.
The Garfield salad is named after Maplewood regular J. Garfield DeMarco, and Jimmy Italiano said a “Boopie’s Chicken,” named for “Boopie” Mortellite, is coming soon to the menu. Shrimp Geraldine is named for Gerri Monestero.
“We feel we honor the important people who helped the Maplewood become what it is today,” Jimmy Italiano said.
Monestero played a pivotal role in the Maplewood story, Jimmy Italiano said.
“When my father went to Maplewood II, she had the responsibility for running this place and all the employees. I learned from her. She helped our family a lot,” Jimmy Italiano said.
Honoring the Italiano name through the Maplewood is important to Jimmy Italiano. He recalled a biblical passage from Proverbs 22:1 that seems to express the connection between family and restaurant.
“A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”
With a fourth generation of Italianos now becoming involved with the family business – Robin and Jimmy’s children are becoming part of the enterprise – the Maplewood’s future seems destined to continue under the banner of the Italiano family.
Another part of that future is seen in people like Jose Montalvo, who has been a chef at the Maplewood in Hammonton for 15 years. Jimmy Italiano said he has brought a new dish called Cavatelli Franco. It features shrimp, crab, tomato and basil sautéed with cavatelli pasta.
“It’s good. People love it,” Jimmy Italiano said.
Loyalty of employees has been a constant at the Maplewood.
“Our employees are better than normal. They are all special and I think the customers notice that. There is a consistency there. They have a good rapport with the customers,” Italiano said.
Along with the loyalty to family, customers and employees, the Italianos also have longstanding relationships with local vendors like Inferrera’s Market, Gino Pinto Inc. and others.
Jimmy Italiano said these relationships are part of what makes the connection between family, friends and business so unique. It is this relationship, he thinks, that has been the critical ingredient in the recipe for the Maplewood’s stunning 60-year success.
“You have to stay loyal to important relationships. You have to honor what went on before, and remember who helped get you where you are today,” Jimmy Italiano said.
Reprinted with permission from the December 21, 2005 edition of The Hammonton Gazette. Copyright © 2005 The Hammonton Gazette Inc. All rights reserved.