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Dispatches: Gio's Gets By on Food and Family

Giovanni's Deli weathers tough economic times by sticking to what it knows best, food and family.

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 .

“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.”

Michael Rosenberg September 20, 2011 at 08:23 PM
What you forgot to mention in the Gios article is how much they have given back to the community, especially the schools. Gios not obnly started to sponsor a scholarship for Fair Lawn High School students but on numerous Friday nights, they open up to support various organizations in town. Kudos to them for being so involved in the Fair Lawn community.
Zak Koeske September 20, 2011 at 08:46 PM
Michael -- I did briefly mention Gio's contribution to holding school and community fundraisers, but I'm saving a lot of that stuff for a more in-depth future article. This one was mainly meant to highlight the struggles that small businesses in town face, as part of our new monthly series, Dispatches: The Changing American Dream.
John Aluotto September 21, 2011 at 03:21 PM
Hey Zak...It was great meeting with you the other day...You did a great job with the article and look forward to working with you in the future! Hope you enjoyed the #57 wrap!
Wayne Robbins September 21, 2011 at 03:28 PM
What a great place..and people too...they have been a big part of our community for many years, and you're right Michael, they do give back, I've covered many benefits held there over the years ( check some of my past videos ), and look forward to doing many more in the future.. Tip of my hat to a great family, and good luck in your new home.
Barbara September 22, 2011 at 05:02 AM
While a volunteer at Fair Lawn TV, I came to know Gio's very well. In fact, Anthony took great care in catering two of my birthday parties. Everything was impeccable and pleasing to my guests who hailed from Manhattan, Queens and Long Island as well as NJ. He and his family represent the finest in their commitment to high quality food and service no matter how busy they are. Wishing the Aluotto family all the best in continuing the legacy left to them by their dad! They are doing him proud!
John Cosgrove September 22, 2011 at 01:03 PM
A great Place! and a great family!!!!!!!!

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