For years, Mike Aluotto was a successful and seemingly restless restaurateur, who would seamlessly transition between ownership of various pizzerias and restaurants across North Jersey, before selling and moving on to the next big project.
But when he opened Giovanni’s Deli on River Road in 1997, he told his family it would be his final enterprise. One day, he hoped to retire from Gio’s and leave it to them -- his wife Santa, and their three sons, Anthony, John and Josh.
“This was his dream,” his son John said. “To leave us something.”
But Mike, the master chef, never had the chance to retire. He died suddenly in February, just months before the Deli moved to a larger location on Morlot Avenue.
“It’s unfortunate he never got to see this place,” said John, who owns and operates the new-look Gio’s with his mother and two brothers. “He always wanted something bigger and better.”
John said the family had been looking to move Gio’s into a larger storefront for years, but hadn’t come across the right place at the right price. They had all but given up when one of their delivery drivers turned them on to the vacancy at 22-08 Morlot Ave. that had once housed the Krazy Coconut, a Caribbean restaurant.
Brothers John and Anthony took one look, conferred quickly and signed the lease later that day, feeling they couldn’t afford to miss out on what seemed like a steal, especially in this economy.
“Financially, it would have been nice if we could have bought a place instead of leasing another place,” John said. “But it’s tough with taxes on property. We looked at a couple places and financially it just didn’t work out.”
To save on costs and customize the new building’s interior to their liking, John said he and his brothers built the new restaurant’s tables and displays by hand – another skill they learned from their father, who had a background in construction.
He estimated that their handiwork saved at least $20,000 on labor alone.
But while the restaurant has continued to increase business year-to-year, especially since moving this summer into the larger location, John said it could be doing better.
The stagnant economy has nearly cut Giovanni’s corporate catering business in half while the escalating price of foodstuffs has forced them to raise prices.
And this from a business that in February was named “Best Italian Deli in Bergen County” by (201) Magazine and finished runner-up to 5-time winner Market Basket in the “Catering” category.
“We’ve raised our prices a little bit, but we can’t raise them as fast as they’re raising them on us,” John said. “I mean people are paying more money for gas, they’re working less hours. Everybody’s losing money, nobody’s making more money. You can’t raise your prices that fast. You can’t keep it up with it.”
Rather than continue to raise prices or cut back from their extensive menu offerings, John said the Aluottos are just planning to wait it out.
“We’re just trying to absorb it for now,” he said. “Hopefully it levels off. Hopefully stuff picks up.”
John said Gio’s has been lucky because it managed to develop a loyal following over the years, first among high school students and later with their parents.
It’s the food and the family atmosphere, John said, that has really sustained Gio’s.
“We get to know our customers, most of them on a first name basis,” he said. “I’d say 70 percent of our customers are repeat business every day.”
The Deli has also endeared itself to the community by giving back whenever it can, holding fundraisers for high school athletics and community organizations, because, as John said, “the kids made us what we are.”
But John said it’s been Gio’s food, first and foremost, that has been responsible for the restaurant’s success. Their famous “No. 57,” which is breaded chicken, vodka sauce and homemade mozzarella with extra sauce on the side, is easily Gio’s best seller.
The unlikely breaded chicken and vodka sauce pairing, which has since been copied by other Italian restaurants in the area, came about around a decade ago, John said.
A clause with a neighboring pizzeria prohibited Gio’s from using red sauce on any of its menu items. John said that using vodka sauce to top their chicken parmigiana instead of red sauce was simply a creative workaround that really took off.
The flavorful vodka sauce, like so much of Gio’s success, traces its roots back to family patriarch, Mike Aluotto.
“None of this would have been possible without him,” John said of his father. “He taught us a lot.”