By JOHN J. BURO
“You really are a funny guy!”
-Ray Liotta (Henry Hill) to Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito) in ‘GoodFellas’
OLD BRIDGE –The rule of thumb is that any stories appearing on the JAR of Hope site should not project humor. And for one obvious reason: Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is clearly no laughing matter. Children, the majority of whom are boys, are generally in wheelchairs before their teenage years and rarely live past 40. Those are the facts as we know them.
But, as with any rule, there is the occasional exception.
So often, played-back interviews translate into somber tales. Most subjects speak with reticence, and prefer not just to choose their words, but their tone, as well. While a politically-correct demeanor is well-meaning, it does make for a robotic and trite sound bite.
And, then, Carlo Castronovo leaned into the microphone and the segment turned into an audition for a Comedy Central roast. Granted, he needed to hunch over to avoid being eradicated by the background noises of a midday crowd. But, did he really need to clutch the tape recorder as if it were open mic night?
Of course, he did.
Castronovo -the proprietor of Giusseppe’s Pizza and Fine Italian Cuisine (2581 Route 516, in the Bilow Park shopping center) since January 2007- had a lot to say only because he has witnessed a lot. From Sayreville -where it all began- to the bright lights of Hollywood and back here, the 41 year-old restauranteur has never lost his levity.
At Sayreville War Memorial, Castronovo’s first interest was wrestling. It wasn’t until he tried to impress one of the actresses in a school production that his foray into the stage really began. The young thespian was “having fun with it,” and drawing raves in the process, which soon led to community theatre.
While the thing with the girl didn’t go past one night -“Should I not say that?” he joked-, the acting bug was very real. Inspired by Al Pacino’s memorable performances in “The Godfather” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” as well as those in the less-memorable “Frankie and Johnny” and “Author! Author!”, Castronovo set his sights on Tinseltown.
Though he didn’t attain a great deal of Hollywood fame, -appearances on “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Charmed” dot his IMDB page- Castronovo still retains his Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card a decade later.
“My wife, Darlene, wants me to keep it, and she pays my dues for me,” he laughed.
By the time he returned home, the fall-back plan was already in place. “My family (whose roots trace back to Sicily) has been in the (pizza) business forever,” Castronovo said. “My father started it, and my four older brothers (each of whom was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn) followed.” Small wonder, then -that growing up with immigrant parents and four Brooklynites- he speaks with a hint of an accent.
Perhaps, with that pedigree, Castronovo was predestined to earn a living as a restaurant owner. There have, certainly, been no regrets. Like that other well-known Italian -Francis Albert Sinatra- he has done it his way.
“I gave California a shot; it was a great experience. Then, work stopped.” About that time, Darlene, whom he had known from his community theatre days in Sayreville, wanted to begin a family.
To which the unemployed actor told her “to find someone else.” Three kids later, she still hadn’t. Even that thought prompted a laugh. “I’ve only had sex the three times since I’ve been with her.”
Back in Jersey, Giusseppe’s (which was originally known as Santino’s) was named for the boss’ uncle. When Castronovo took control, the new name was a mere six months old. “Why change it again?” he rationalized.
“The intention wasn’t to stay here; it was to build it up and sell it. But, I’ve met a lot of great people in this community. And, business was good enough to stay afloat. So, I stayed. It’s been twelve years now, and I’ve watched many of my customers grow up. It’s beautiful.”
It’s so beautiful, in fact, that Castronovo feigned losing count on how long he has been married. Through a devilish smile, he offered, “Why do you have to ask me this question?” although he knew full well that his marriage to both Darlene and the business are only months apart.
“That’s just a number; let’s just say that I’m happily married.”
When Castronovo re-modeled Giusseppe’s a year ago, he decided to pay homage to that which was important to him -namely, a black-and-white collage of show business types chowing down on fine Italian food along the back wall and large stills of the ‘old country’ above the tables.
“It’s a little of both -yes, there are a lot of Italians up there-, because many of them have inspired me in life. It all goes into what I wanted when I re-did it: I knew there would a brick wall, with celebrities eating, and some family photos.
It seems that, even with all of those fond moments, the one thing that’s missing from his establishment is a signature moment, such as the iconic scene in the 1977 dance classic, “Saturday Night Fever,” when John Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, drops by Lenny’s Pizza on 86th Street in Bensonhurst for a double-decker slice.
However, there is one parallel between Giusseppe’s and Lenny’s. According to a story which appeared on the Storefront Survivors website, the latter -which opened in 1953- was sold by 1960, and again in the mid 80s. Yet, the original name has always stuck, says the current owner, Josephine Giordano, because it was embedded in the neighborhood.
“That would be really cool,” Castronovo agreed. “That would be awesome if a classic -not the ‘Jersey Shore’ or something like that- was shot here. I’d love that. Can I hope for that? I think any (local business) would hope for that. That would be fantastic…as long as they’re not shooting porn.”