Overview “The intangibles that enabled me to achieve my greatness also contained the seeds to my destruction.” --Joseph Costanzo, Jr. Joseph Costanzo, Jr., a young postal worker with a daydream of opening a world-class Italian restaurant in a dying town, becomes a classic example of blind ambition, as he is at once the driving force behind his success and the cause of his own downfall. “The Rocks” is no longer a destination for anyone but the locals when Joe Costanzo entertains thoughts of buying a struggling restaurant on a corner of the abandoned and dangerous streets of McKees Rocks in the 1980s. As Joe begins to make his dream come true, The Primadonna Restaurant becomes the main setting of the story as well as the hottest spot in town. With its delectable tastes, smells, camaraderie, behind-the-scenes antics, and celebrity appearances, the place begins to feel like home to readers, or at least a place they enjoy visiting through story. Much like the bar in the TV show Cheers, the restaurant is quite enough to carry not only the plot, but many subplots as well, enhanced by the descriptions of the food, drinks, and people within its walls. As the restaurant gains national attention and exceeds all expectations, it is the unlikely setting of The Primadonna—The Rocks—that makes Joe’s accomplishments astounding. Joe makes it “chic” to venture to The Rocks for dinner, garnering the highest local and national awards possible. While The Primadonna is still in its heyday, Joe decides to run for County Commissioner. Just as he had no restaurant experience yet made it all happen with hard work and sweat, Costanzo feels he can do the same in the political arena. He believes the marketing algorithm that he created for The Primadonna will easily cross over to the voters. He is proven wrong, but not before pouring the family’s entire savings into the campaign without his wife’s knowledge. When Joe’s ill-advised decisions catch up with him and he is sentenced for tax evasion, the setting switches to the Morgantown Federal Correction Institute, where Joe spends five months in prison. We get an insider’s scoop in a place about which many people are naturally curious. At the end of the book, when it seems that Joe has lost everything—the restaurant, his health, his magnificent home, his income, his ability to help others, and even his freedom for a time—he reflects warmly on what he has gained from the experience. Costanzo is a complex character whose actions attract and repulse, whom we admire for his confidence and rebuke for his arrogance, whom we love for his generosity and despise for his egotism, whom we learn from in both his attention to detail and lack thereof. An array of minor characters keeps the story interesting, from Joe’s own father to the local cops to the IRS, but readers will be most intrigued by the way Joe jeopardizes his own happiness and success. Come and walk beside this anything-but-average Joe as he takes you through his bumpy journey on the Rocks.
One author is a natural expert on Costanzo’s biography—Palmer is his daughter and figures into key life events. Recounted in Joe’s first-person point of view, his voice exudes local color and nostalgia about his choices. In addition, celebrity visits, bar fights, and newspaper articles filled with culinary accolades enliven descriptions of the everyday life of a restaurant owner and manager. Readers will celebrate with the Costanzo family when the Primadonna garners a much-coveted five-fork review from a hard-headed food critic and bite their nails as Costanzo faces the possible loss of everything he has strived to build.
Perhaps most enjoyable are details of Italian cuisine such as meeting patrons’ demand for tiramisu after the release of Sleepless in Seattle, mouth-watering descriptions of Joe’s fried zucchini hors d’oeuvre, and his famous salad dressing, eventually stocked in grocery stores. Joe’s ceaseless generosity, sensitivity to criticism, and harsh temper reveal a complex, compelling individual. Palmer and Robbins portray over two decades in the life of a vivacious man who brought high-class, authentic Italian food to a community and beyond.
Takeaway: Tantalizing peek at a notorious restaurateur’s life and culinary art.
Comparable Titles: Daniel Meyer’s Setting the Table, Bill Buford’s Heat.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A