Joseph Migliucci, Pizza Maker
A Remembrance by William O’Shaughnessy
April 7, 2020
On the 6th day of April, 2020, seven hundred and thirty-one people in New York died and went to another and, we are sure, a better world. One of them was a Joseph Migliucci who made pizzas. He had existed around here for 81 years.
Actually, this man Migliucci did a hell of a lot more than spin pizza dough in the air. Never, in his 81 years, did he ever spend a single second in Italy from whence his forebearers came. Instead Joseph presided over the most beloved Italian restaurant in the great city. Known for five generations, it is actually called Mario’s and is heralded and quite beloved far beyond Arthur Avenue in the Little Italy neighborhood of the Bronx.
He was the son of Mario Migliucci, a slim, elegant man who moved through a dining room before him like Fred Astaire. His mother, who was widely known as “Mama Rose,” was a Bochino girl, the most beautiful in the Roman Catholic parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The restaurant over which Mario and Rose, and then their son Joseph presided was unlike any other eatery abroad in the land.
Arthur Avenue is a place of myth and legend. Many venues these days are run by Albanians. But the Italians like Joseph still hold their own as fishmongers, butchers, greengrocers, bakers and cannoli makers. Also as restaurateurs.
“Interesting” characters still abound on the streets of Belmont as this part of the Bronx is formally known. I once inquired of Joseph Migliucci if he was “affiliated” or “associated” with any of the two famous neighborhood “associations” or so-called “social Clubs.” And after pondering the question, he said: “No … I’m not ‘with’ anybody … but, let’s put it this way … nobody bothers me.”
Although you would occasionally encounter some of those “interesting” characters at table during Joe Migliucci’s time there were also federal judges like Jed Rakoff, Westchester judges like Mary Smith and Tom Dickerson and former Yankees like Bucky Dent.
Mario Cuomo loved the place and so did Bronx legend Mario Biaggi. A picture of “The Three Marios” – Mario Cuomo … Mario Biaggi … and Mario Migliucci, Joseph’s father, still hangs reverently near the front door.
Before Joseph took his leave to that better world on Monday of this week, he and his devoted daughter Regina installed faux leather, saddle-colored banquets along the dining room’s side walls where once were displayed hundreds of pictures of Joseph and his family and friends which were recently removed as a gesture to “modernize” and spiff up the place. It is expected that the family mementos will now, with his passing, return to their places of honor.
He sure had a following, this man Joseph Migliucci, which included the rich and well-founded from Westchester and Connecticut … Fordham Jesuits … an exterminator … a 107-year-old named Joe Binder who was written up by Corey Kilgannon in the New York Times itself. And Karen and Judge Jeffrey Bernbach always came down from Westchester for their weekly “lemon squeeze” with Joseph.
It was the place to go – before and after – the Bronx Zoo, the Botanical Gardens, or the Stadium, which is home to our beloved Yankees. And each year Fordham’s graduation was the busiest day of the year.
You would often see Frances Fusco, the beautiful Bronx legend, and busloads of white-haired ladies who came from all over the metro area to bask in Joseph’s warm and welcoming hospitality. Julian Niccolini, the colorful proprietor of the Four Seasons, would also pick up a pizza on the way home to tony Bedford.
And on other spring days better than this one, Margaret Noonan and Fred Nachbaur, and the elders of the highly-regarded Fordham University Press would leave their old building and stroll down the avenue in the sunshine to visit Joseph, where the pizza, which never existed on the menu, was the best to be had in America.
I also came often to Joseph’s table … just to be with the guy. In recent years, the “diminishments” (it’s a word Cuomo and I stole from the Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) nibbled away at his legs and lungs and heart. And yet Joseph refused to cede his title as Patriarch of his extended restaurant family.
They even won a James Beard Award. And last year Mario’s, the restaurant, had its Centennial. I knew the proprietor for 40 of those 100 years. My grandchildren still remember riding on the serving carts when the usually crowded dining room would allow. Joseph and Mama Rose always would “allow.”
He spent a lot of time bailing people out and getting them out of trouble. Joseph knew every judge … and every important doctor. Doctor Philip Ozuah, the graceful and influential new head of the huge Montefiore Health System, in whom every one is so well pleased, moved right in to help Joseph scramble at White Plains Hospital before he gave up and left us on Monday.
And so as I sit here the very next day over a legal pad on my own 82nd birthday, I can only tell you I really miss the damn, wonderful guy.
I make my living with words (in my case they usually appear awkwardly, inartfully and imprecisely). But I don’t really have the words to tell of how much I miss this particular man, the Pizza Maker.
It’s much easier to write about people who are just acquaintances and exist from afar rather than someone who always called me “Brother Bill.”
Only one other gave me that elevated appellation – a failed baseball player with too many vowels in his name who was a governor.
I give the last word to Food Critic and author John Mariani who called Joseph “one of the great men of Italian-American food … a big, sweet giant beloved by everyone.”
I think he got it just right for my brother Joseph, the Pizza Maker.