The sign out front at 92 Clinton Street says “Famous for Cheesesteaks, Est. 1955.” Entering the establishment, you’re guaranteed a few things: fresh, quality food; a diverse, friendly clientele; and a rare glimpse into genuine old-school Hoboken.
Just do yourself a favor, bub, and don’t ask Patleo “Patty Boy” Spaccavento for a Philly cheesesteak.
Now, he’s not going to toss you to the curb or anything; you may simply receive a calm explanation that this isn’t the style of steak sandwich offered at Piccolo’s for the past 60 years. But, depending on your own temperament and Patty’s mood on that particular day, he might have a little bit of fun with you.
“You have to pick and choose; you can tell who you can joke with and who you can’t,” Spaccavento says. “You don’t want to offend anybody—but then again, I’ve probably offended many people.”
It’s all part of the memorable experience of a visit to Piccolo’s. So what’s in that sandwich, anyway?
“We use prime rib without the bone, hand-sliced individually, every day,” Spaccavento explains. Hot off the grill with melting American cheese, fried onions if you like, and slid into crispy-and-chewy Hoboken bread from Dom’s—Piccolo’s bakery of choice for decades—this cheesesteak is a thing of beauty. And it is a proud family tradition.
“I learned everything that I know from my father,” Patty says. “It took me a long while to understand, to get it right. It took a lot of [grief] from my father.”
Patty didn’t say “grief.”
Patty Boy may run the place, but Piccolo’s was opened and is still owned by his father, Joseph “Sparky” Spaccavento. And “owner” is not just a legality.
“I’ve got news for you: My dad is still in charge of the day-to-day operations,” Patty states. “Make no bones about that, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Joseph—already nicknamed Sparky because he moved so fast—arrived in Hoboken in November, 1937. His father, Pantaleo, was a day laborer who helped build the George Washington Bridge. When another World War seemed imminent in Europe, Pantaleo sent for his wife, Nicoletta, and 7-year-old Joseph back in Molfetta, Italy. They settled at 109 Clinton Street and Sparky was impressed right away.
“I walked to the corner at Clinton and First, and I found seven cents on the ground: a nickel and two pennies,” Joseph Spaccavento remembers. “I thought, what a country, you find money on the ground here!”
But there weren’t nearly enough coins on the streets of Depression-era Hoboken, so everyone had to pitch in. Nicoletta worked in a sweatshop coat factory, and young Sparky started helping out at Valentino’s butcher shop on First Street.
“I was left back three times in the 8th grade for truancy, because I was working,” Sparky says. However, there was a positive outcome: “Then I knew I wanted to be a butcher.”
Sure enough, by age 16, he owned his own butcher shop—Sparky’s Meat Market—at 504 Jefferson Street. The Feast of the Madonna dei Martiri (now the Hoboken Italian Festival) was already well established among the many immigrants from Molfetta; the patron saint of sailors had special meaning in that coastal town. At the Feast, Joseph and a friend set up a charcoal grill and sold the Italian delicacy “fegatelli,” calf’s liver wrapped in caul fat with basil. Cooking up food for grateful people—Joseph liked how it felt.
By the early 1950s, Joseph was married to Angelina and was now working at Tony Cilento’s butcher shop on First. Within a couple of years, an opportunity presented itself. A 10-family building at 92 Clinton Street burned to the ground. Joseph bought the lot with the idea of opening his own restaurant. He received a tremendous amount of help from the owners of the next-door Club 88, a popular bar catering to an African-American clientele.
“The Davises, who owned the club, were like family to us—they were very receptive,” Joseph says. “They said, you take care of the food, we’ll take care of the liquor. It was a match made in heaven.”
But first, the small restaurant needed a name. “Angelina and I had gone on our honeymoon in Florida, and there was a fine-dining restaurant in Miami called Picciolo, where we ate quite a bit,” Joseph recalls. “Piccolo means small in Italian, so that’s what we came up with.”
Joseph, Angelina, and their baby daughter Colette were there for Piccolo’s grand opening, on May 3, 1955. The initial business plan was “night action”—6 p.m. till midnight, or 3 or 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The Club 88 crowd provided most of Piccolo’s customer base, along with Italians living downtown. As for the menu…
“Plain and simple, just what we have now: southern fried chicken, fried fish, fried shrimp. We had clams in those days—I shucked many a clam,” Joseph says. “Cheesesteaks, burgers, franks, and fries. When it works, you don’t change it.” The American fare has been supplemented by Italian touches such as ziti, ravioli, meatballs and their well-regarded homemade soups.
For their first 10 years in business, Joseph continued to work at Tony Cilento’s during the day. The Spaccavento family, now living at 327 Park Avenue, expanded with the births of Cathy and, in 1961, Patleo. Angelina worked at the restaurant (as she would continue to do for some 30 years) while the kids were at the St. Francis Parish School, and then would rush home to make dinner. “My mother paid her dues, and then some,” Patty Boy says. Her parents—Antonio and Catherine Funari, a longshoreman and seamstress—helped care for the kids too, from their home on Madison Street.
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