All in the family

No Vineyard restaurant has deeper family ties than Giordano’s.

Buster Giordano, one of the grandsons of the founders. —Jeremy Driesen

It was April 27, and I was meeting Richie Giordano, one of the owners of Giordano’s restaurant in Oak Bluffs, and it was the day before the Pizza Room and the Clam Bar were about to reopen for the season. Richie, a dapper-looking fellow in his 60s, still had a trace of a tan from spending time in Aruba. And as we sat down to talk in Giordano’s dining room, I asked Richie what it felt like sitting there in the calm before the storm, so to speak, after having taken the winter off. He knew that his whole world was about to turn upside down, and 12-hour workdays would soon rule the day.

Richie sat back in his chair looking reflective, and said, “I still love this job, I really do. I love carrying on the tradition of my grandfather and my parents. I’ve been working in the family business all my life. People ask me when am I going to retire, and I say, ‘When I get old, and I’m not there yet.’”

Eduardo and Maria Giordano, the founders. —Jeremy Driesen

The day before, Buster Giordano, Richie’s big brother, took me through some of the family’s history while we were sitting up in his apartment over the restaurant. He began by telling me where his nickname, Buster, came from. Apparently he was a big, healthy baby, and one of the family members picked him up and said, “This is a big buster.” And it stuck. 

He then explained that his grandfather, Edwardo, came to America from a small fishing village not too far from Naples. When I asked him how he happened to come to America, Buster said, “I don’t know, but thank God he did.” Edwardo and his wife Maria moved to East Boston, and for a while he was employed at the Charlestown Navy Yard. But Edwardo and Maria’s lives would take a dramatic turn when a friend of theirs suggested they take a ride out to Martha’s Vineyard: In a way it would remind them of the little fishing village they came from.

In 1930 the Giordanos came to the Island and fell in love with it, and bought a little restaurant called the Pawnee House, which was directly across from where the Oak Bluffs Post Office is located today. They named the restaurant Giordano’s Italian American Restaurant in an effort to be inclusive. “You could get everything from a bowl of spaghetti to a ham sandwich there,” Buster said. “Plus, they had a brick pizza oven they fired up every morning.”

Edwardo Giordano, first generation (Buster and Richie’s grandfather), in front of the original location, in the 1930s. —Courtesy Michael Giordano

Then in 1944, Edwardo and Maria’s son Wilfred had his eye on a piece of property for the family restaurant located at the end of Circuit Avenue, directly across from the Flying Horses. “We moved down there when I was about 6 months old,” Buster said. “I used to sleep in a drawer with a pillow.”

The property had a restaurant called the Magnolia; it was owned by Walter Perkins, and the Magnolia evoked a time in Oak Bluffs’ history when the area around the restaurant specialized in items from China and Japan. “We had to tear down the old Magnolia years later, and when they started ripping shingles off,” Richie said, “on the side of the wall facing Kennebec, it said, ‘Imports and Exports of China and Japan.’”

The Magnolia became Giordano’s, and they soon set up the restaurant as we know it today, with the dining room serving traditional Italian and American cuisine, and the Clam Bar and the Pizza Room serving takeout.

“I can remember making pizza when I was 14,” Richie Giordano said. “I ended up in the Pizza Room because we found that, as it is today, it’s very difficult to find people to make pizzas. My father knew a guy from East Boston named Luigi who came from Naples, and he came down to run the pizza operation, and I learned from him.

“Back then, the pizza oven was where the dining room is today, and I’d make pizzas and sell them out the window to people on the sidewalk,” Richie said. 

Running a restaurant on the Island has always been tough sledding, because you have to make all your money in just 10 weeks. And on top of that, there are other external events that can create strong headwinds, like the Steamship Authority strike in 1960. The strike lasted 76 days, from April to July 1, and it nearly crippled businesses like Gio’s, which relied on fresh goods and produce from off-Island. “Those were really tough times,” said Buster, “and they would have been even worse if some folks from Menemsha and Aquinnah didn’t step up and ferry produce to the Island with their fishing boats.” 

And then there was Hurricane Carol back in 1954, one of the worst tropical storms ever to hit the Island. “When Carol hit, I remember water pouring in through the doors, and we’d have to take rowboats down to the harbor. I’ve been living here 78 years,” Buster said, “and that was a crazy, scary time.”

Over the years, with the help of a strong family and loyal customers, Giordano’s has not only endured, they’ve prospered. But in the early ’70s, the building that had served Gio’s so well over the years was in need of some TLC.

“We knew we had to do some work on the dining room ceiling,” Richie said, “and we brought in the Dunkl family of Chilmark [Heidi, Peter, and Frank Dunkl are skilled craftsmen, and past recipients of the Martha’s Vineyard Creative Living Award], and they peeled back some of the suspended ceiling in the dining room and we looked up and said, ‘It’s beautiful.’” The suspended ceiling was covering up the original ceiling, with its beautiful Victorian craftsmanship. So the Dunkls not only restored the ceiling, they created the beautiful stained glass windows you see in the dining room today, including the letter “G” inscribed on the front door. 

As Richie pointed out the Dunkls’ handiwork, I couldn’t help noticing a large copper appliance of sorts, tucked away on a table in the dining room. He told me it had once belonged to his father, Wilfred.

Richie explained that it was a copper hot dog cooker that his grandfather gave to his father. “In the middle you had water to cook the hot dogs,” he said, “on the one side you had the buns, and on the other side you had the condiments. My dad would travel around Oak Bluffs and sell hot dogs. And as he traveled around, he’d sing this song: ‘They’re all ready and they’re all red hot, pickles in the middle and mustard on top.’ He would get 25 hot dogs and sell them for a nickel apiece, and if he was lucky, he’d get a tip which he would get to keep.”

So from the very beginning Giordano’s has always been about family, and some things never change.

This year marks the debut of the fourth generation of the Giordano family to run the restaurant. Buster and Richie are the third generation. They both grew up working in the restaurant, and in 1980, when Wilfred retired, they took over the business, and have carried on the family tradition as it was taught to them. 

Today the fourth generation of Giordanos are beginning to take over the show. Buster and his wife Valerie have three children, and they’re all actively involved in the business.

Their son Billy is the kitchen manager. Carl is a manager, Jason manages the Clam Bar, and Leanne is also a restaurant manager. 

And Richie’s son Michael has taken after his father, and is manager of the Pizza Room. “There are also several grandchildren,” Buster said, “and if our kids keep having grandchildren, pretty soon we won’t have to hire any outside help at all.”