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Legendary Restauranteur Joseph Costanzo Jr. Reveals all in Fine Dining Memoir “On The Rocks”

Legendary Pittsburgh Restauranteur Joseph Costanzo Jr. Reveals all in his Tasty Memoir with “On The Rocks”

On the Rocks chronicles the real-life journey of restaurateur Joseph Costanzo Jr., from his rise to success in the 1990s as a owner of the highly acclaimed Primadonna Restaurant, radio host, columnist, and aspiring politician to his sharp fall in the early 2000s, ending in an investigation and a stint in federal prison.

Costanzo is a complex character, whom readers will admire for his confidence and rebuke for his arrogance, will love for his generosity and despise for his egotism, and will learn from in both his attention to detail and lack thereof.

This driven, not-your-average-Joe is an unforgettable character who achieves the seemingly impossible but can’t help getting in his own way. Come along with Joe for a bumpy ride on the rocks

On the Rocks: The Primadonna Story, co-written by Maria C. Palmer and Ruthie Robbins is available now on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Walmart, Target.  Signed copies at the Heinz History Center. Also follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

Today, we’re having a conversation with all three: Joseph Costanzo Jr., co-writers Maria C. Palmer and Ruthie Robbins.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.  Find the un-edited conversation on our FlavRReport YouTube channel.

Something that I find amazing, this book has been 17 years in the process. Is that an accurate piece of trivia?

Maria C. Palmer: 100%. Yes, that is a very accurate piece of trivia.

So way back 17 years ago, what sparked this for you?

Maria C. Palmer: A couple of things. I think that because the restaurant was such a significant part of our lives, and it was always the highlight of my father’s life. Once it went away, the spark kind of went away, too. And I wanted to bring that back in my Dad. So I started asking him lots of questions about his life. Specifically for a family history. At the time, being a writer myself, in addition to grant writing, I’m also a writer and I can really spot a good story that has commercial value.

On The Rocks co-author Maria C. Palmer

On The Rocks co-author Maria C. Palmer

There were just so many wonderful elements to his story. So I started recording some vignettes of different things that had happened throughout his life. But not really knowing and or intending at the time that it would be a book. 

But as we went on, I saw that the potential was there and I was lucky enough to still be in contact with my former teacher, Ruthie Dines Robbins and brought the project to her and asked her if she would be willing to work on it with me.

It was really from there that we decided it would become a book and that we would work together diligently for probably 10 years together.

Ruthie Robbins: I’m only 7 years.

Joseph Costanzo Jr.: They had it in Maria’s voice originally. Ruthie was in a book club and they said, “Put it in Joe’s voice and they had to go back and change the whole book.”  I watched 11, 000 emails back and forth. 

Ruthie Robbins: We were not primarily emailing. We were mostly talking and texting, and that year was the pandemic year. So I was off teaching that winter and the following fall.

 

Before we get into the restaurant itself, what was the writing process like?

Maria C. Palmer: I can speak to the family history and just the overall process of it. It was really challenging. Because whenever you’re writing a memoir or a biography, You’re not writing a Wikipedia page. So it’s not from the time somebody is born until the time that they pass away.

You’re picking the most poignant time in their lives. Not only cherry picking all the good things that happened during that time period, but you’re picking some of the challenges too, because that’s what makes a good story. 

It was challenging to figure out what the storyline was going to be and sometimes to tell those hard parts of the story.

What was even more challenging, was just the nebulous nature of the publishing industry.  I just thought you wrote a book, it’s on Amazon and then people buy it. And that could not be further from the truth. Query letters.  Polished one page, a 90,000 word manuscript.  A whole book proposal.  An entire business plan of why we’re writing the book and why it’s going to sell into the market. Requiring that much to not even get a thanks,, but just no response whatsoever.

Ruthie Robbins: Totally agree. The writing was not arduous part because Maria and I get along so well.. We’re real partners, but this publishing thing.  We really didn’t understand the process, so it is difficult, and especially in this genre, [competing with] the celebrities and athletes and reality stars who wrote memoirs.  They want a name on the shelf that someone will pick up in a bookstore. 

 

Mr. Costanzo, one of my favorite parts of this book is the wine mentions.  Tell us your “Pin on the wall” story.

Joseph Costanzo Jr.: Yeah we’re in a tough neighborhood, but we brought in a lot of people outside the area and upscale people,  limos, what have you. 

I had a bus boy and he was a really good worker. He became a server and he came to me after he got the drink order and said, ”what’s a pin on the wall?”

I never heard of a “Pin on the Wall”. So we went to the bartender. He didn’t know either.  We looked it up, nothing. 

So I went out there to ask the customers, so we could make it for them  – and one of the most mortal sins at the Primadonna was making Joe Costanzo look bad – I said, excuse me what’s in a Pin on a Wall and they all started laughing. The guy said, “Pinot Noir.”

They’re laughing at me.  That’s bad. So I went in and I really did a job on this kid.  My wife grabbed me by my tie and pushed me downstairs to my office.

I was in this kid’s face because he really wasn’t real serious about the situation.  If you’re going to be the best at what you’re doing, you can’t be messing up like that.

He ended up being great.  Chris, who was the server, became a maitre’d and a great employee of mine.  He was very loyal. I really went overboard with him and I did feel bad about it. 

 

Reviews are incredibly important.  The amount of work and effort you put in to get your Four Forks Review. Tell us a little bit about what happened.

Joseph Costanzo Jr.: Because the area was an old steel town which had a reputation of a lot of fighting, a lot of drinking, a lot of drugs, nobody would come into that area to eat.

I knew I needed credibility, and the only way I would get credibility was through the Pittsburgh Post, because the dining critic, Mike Kalina,  who was a syndicated columnist, had tremendous credibility. KDKA TV, Post Gazette, New York Daily News.

For two and a half years, I kept reaching out to him.  This is in a time before cell phones and emails.

But I knew if he comes down and gives us a good review, people from outside the area, from the upscale areas of the city are going to come in.  That’s what happened. 

But he did say to me, “You deserve four, but I’ll only give you three because you’ll never handle the business.” 

That Friday night, June 3rd 1988, he was 100 percent right. People were lined up at the door. I was used to doing 10-15 dinners a night. We did over 200 dinners that night and it was a total joke. People waited two and a half hours. When food came out of the kitchen, people actually applauded. People were begging me to get him a bottle of vodka because they couldn’t get a drink at the bar. 

We were short of service. We were short of bartenders. I made it all work in the next couple of weeks and I hired people.

 

I don’t want to ruin the upcoming movie or TV series, but when you trimmed it down, how much heartbreak was there in cutting out so many stories?

Joseph Costanzo Jr.: It was very tough. We had a book signing in August. I kept telling people they were in the book, and they were in the draft I read.  But there were final touches that I didn’t see and we lost a lot of names and alot of stories.  So I really felt bad. I found the actual early draft and sent copies to those people.  This should be in a book, but it will be in the movie, I guarantee you.

Ruthie Robbins:  It was so hard. We did a lot of fact checking when we wrote, because memories are so unreliable. We talked to people who were in the original book [draft] and they expected to be more.  And on top of that, you try to end the chapter on a cliffhanger.  When you take out a story that changes the number of pages in the chapter, it changes the pace of the book.  That was a terrible editing challenge.

Maria, what was that like for you as the author and the daughter?

Maria C. Palmer: Originally the book was written partially in my voice and partially in my Dad’s voice. It started chronologically for me in my twenties and [had] flashbacks because the story starts in 1986 and I was very young at that time.  It was confusing and it didn’t work.  Everything that I wrote and all that I put my heart and soul into  was all cut from the book. So now I have another book project that I’m working on.

But I will echo what my father and Ruthie said. It was hard because everybody did have a significant piece to the Primadonna story.  

 

Mr. Costanza, it would be an easy assumption to say you’ve lived a big life. Are there one or two things you would have done differently in the stories of the book now looking back on them?

Joseph Costanzo Jr.: Sure. When you are hitting all home runs, you tend to believe that everything that you do is gonna be a home run.  I had the most popular restaurant in Western Pennsylvania. Maybe I’m going to do something else, maybe I’ll go into politics.

I spent about $300,000 of my own money to put my name out there. Most people loved Joe Costanzo, but now when you get into politics it’s not that way. So that was probably my biggest regret.

My wife begged me not to do it. She said, Joe, we have a miracle here and you’re going to try for another miracle. And she was right. You may or may not like Joe Costanzo when you read the book, but you will love Donna Costanzo.

Joseph Costanzo Jr.: And that’s bottom line. Everybody says the same thing. Joe, it was great. What he did is impossible, but his wife was a saint for putting up with all this stuff that a restaurateur has to go through. 

The theme of hospitality comes out in the book, but you so clearly love people.  What has it been like getting all these people’s responses to this story?

Joseph Costanzo Jr.: This has been unbelievable for me. People are very happy that this all happened this way.  I treated people really well and people wanted to reciprocate.  So exhilarating to me. My life has been very boring, but now it’s really gotten to the point where it’s been great thanks to Maria and Ruthie.

Ruthie Robbins: It’s heartwarming. Especially from former students, the outpouring has brought me to tears sometimes.  It’s reconnecting with people over the book. That has really been so wonderful

Maria C. Palmer: This has been such a 17 year journey. I always believed that there was something special about this story.  Seeing that exactly what I felt in my gut for 17 years is actually playing out in real life.

Whenever we’re in Pittsburgh, it is almost surreal because people are talking about “On The Rocks and it’s really cool and crazy to know that something that you created means so much for people.

Joseph Costanzo Jr.: The big thing which is amazing to me is that the book came out August 8th, 2023. For two weeks, the book was the number one bestselling ebook on Amazon for culinary memoirs. Ahead of Anthony Bourdain’s, Kitchen Confidential and Stanley Tucci’s Taste “On the Rocks” for over two weeks was the number one overall best-selling ebook. Now that’s hard to believe because this was just a Western Pennsylvania thing and Bourdain and Tucci are worldwide known authors and entertainers.

Tell us where we can find the book and all the ways we can keep in touch with this story.

Maria C. Palmer: So the book is really wherever books are sold.  We’re on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Walmart, Target. We’re also at most bookstores.   Also on Facebook and Instagram.

Ruthie Robbins: There’s also signed copies at the Heinz History Center

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Nén Danang Awarded 2024 MICHELIN Green Star for Sustainability

Nén Danang Awarded 2024 MICHELIN Green Star for Sustainability

At the prestigious MICHELIN Awards Ceremony held at the InterContinental Hotel Saigon, a notable achievement was celebrated within the realm of sustainable gastronomy: Nén Danang, a pioneer in Vietnam’s fine dining scene, was honored with the 2024 MICHELIN Green Star for Excellence in Sustainability. As the first Vietnamese restaurant in the world to be recognized, as well as the first in Vietnam, this accolade underscores Nén’s commitment to innovative and environmentally conscious practices that set a benchmark for the industry.

The Michelin Green Star, a prestigious annual award, celebrates restaurants leading the industry in sustainability. Highlighting establishments that uphold rigorous ethical and environmental standards, this accolade recognizes those who collaborate with sustainable producers and suppliers to minimize waste and reduce or eliminate plastics and other non-recyclable materials. To date, only 540 restaurants worldwide have earned this honor, offering dining experiences that not only exemplify culinary excellence but also demonstrate exceptional eco-friendly practices. These restaurants serve as beacons of inspiration for both enthusiastic foodies and the broader hospitality industry.

Nén Danang, under the visionary leadership of Chef Summer Le and her partner Leon Le, has been instrumental in redefining what it means to dine sustainably. With a culinary philosophy deeply rooted in the principles of ethical and environmental stewardship, Nén sources 99% of its ingredients locally, including from its own farms, thereby supporting Vietnam’s local economies and artisans while minimizing environmental impact. This approach not only ensures the freshest ingredients but also fosters a strong connection with the community and the natural world.

The restaurant’s Sto:ry Menus exemplify this ethos, merging rich Vietnamese traditions with inventive dining experiences. Each dish is a celebration of nature and a narrative of culture, crafted to offer a multi-sensory delight that evokes emotions ranging from joy to nostalgia. Notably, their Sto:ry Menu #5 is a zero-waste venture that transforms everyday ingredients, such as eggshells into noodles, showcasing an innovative approach to sustainability.

The core of Nén’s culinary identity lies in its commitment to ‘Conscious Vietnamese cuisine.’ The restaurant’s ethos—origin, aesthetic, intention, balance, emotion, and presence—guides its culinary choices. Each aspect, from the sourcing of ingredients to the final presentation, is thoughtfully curated to enhance the dining experience, making every meal an event of conscious consumption and enjoyment.

Nén’s unique approach to cuisine also reflects in its name, derived from a humble but flavorful ingredient found in Central Vietnam’s kitchens. This reflects the restaurant’s philosophy: finding potential in the overlooked and elevating it to something extraordinary. It’s about transforming simplicity into splendor, turning each meal into an exploration of the hidden depths of Vietnamese culinary traditions.

Located next to Nén Farm in Da Nang, the restaurant serves as the flagship for a brand that is deeply invested in research and sustainability. Despite challenges like a temporary closure during the Covid-19 pandemic, Nén Danang reopened in 2023 with renewed vigor and a continued focus on its sustainable mission. This commitment culminated in receiving Vietnam’s first and only MICHELIN Green Star in 2024, a testament to its leadership in promoting a sustainable and ethically aware dining culture.

Through Nén Danang, diners are invited not just to eat, but to experience stories through flavors, where each dish serves as a dialogue between the chef and the earth, a narrative that continues to inspire both food enthusiasts and culinary peers around the world.

 

Jérôme Peschard Leads Vietnam Art Renaissance, Launches Art Exhibition at the Sofitel Saigon Plaza in Ho Chi Minh City

Jérôme Peschard Launches Art Exhibition at the Sofitel Saigon Plaza in Ho Chi Minh City

For the past 60 years, Sofitel Hotels & Resorts has epitomised the essence of French art de vivre across the globe. As 2024 heralds its Diamond Jubilee, commemorated with a series of exclusive events at Sofitel properties worldwide, Sofitel Saigon Plaza, the paragon of French hospitality in Ho Chi Minh City, proudly inaugurated an extraordinary celebration of art.

From Left- Betty Qiffe Pallard, Consul General Daniël Stork of the Netherlands to Vietnam, Nykky Do and Milena Padula- Spouse of Consul General of Italy to Vietnam / photos courtesy of Nick Middleton for the Sofitel Saigon Plaza.

photos courtesy of Nick Middleton for the Sofitel Saigon Plaza.

On the evening of June 21st, the Sofitel Saigon Plaza was the scene of a glittering event, marking the launch of a collaboration with the internationally renowned French Pop Artist, Jérôme Peschard.

French Pop Artist Jérôme Peschard Portrait / photo courtesy of Stephane Thierry

French Pop Artist Jérôme Peschard Portrait / photo courtesy of Stephane Thierry

The hotel’s lobby served as an elegant backdrop for an array of Peschard’s stunning oil paintings on recycled corrugated metal, showcasing his inspiration from French Indochina.

From Left- Tracie May, Milena Padula- Wife of Consul General of Italy to Vietnam, Sofitel Saigon Plaza Hotel Manager Alistair Minty, Lindsay Nutley, Consul General of Australia to Vietnam Sarah Hooper, Simon Pugh and Michael Hooper // photos courtesy of Nick Middleton for the Sofitel Saigon Plaza.

The event attracted an illustrious group of attendees, including Mrs. Sarah Hooper, Consul General of Australia to Vietnam; Mr. Daniël Stork, Consul General of the Netherlands to Vietnam; Mrs. Milena Padula, spouse of Italian Consul General Enrico Padula; and Mrs. Lê Hạnh, CEO of TVHub Vietnam. Distinguished guests also included Michelin Starred Chef/Owner Peter Cong Franklin of Ănăn Saigon, totalling one hundred and thirty of Ho Chi Minh’s leading tastemakers.

photos courtesy of Nick Middleton for the Sofitel Saigon Plaza.

Guests enjoyed a selection of exquisite canapés, fine wines, and champagne while admiring Peschard’s captivating works. Adding to the allure, music by DJ Edge Pamute filled the space, and trendsetters Tracie May and Nykky Domodelled custom-embroidered Áo Dài, the national costume of Vietnam, designed by Peschard and couturière Giao Basson. A pop-up retail store showcasing Peschard’s merchandise collection also opened to the public, featuring a curated selection of home decor, limited edition numbered and artist-signed lacquer replicas of paintings, and an array of gift items. Both the boutique and the art exhibit will grace the Sofitel Saigon Plaza throughout the summer, concluding in early September.

photos courtesy of Nick Middleton for the Sofitel Saigon Plaza.

This premier event highlighted the vibrant intersection of art, culture, and gastronomy, celebrating a unique fusion that will enchant visitors throughout the season, encapsulating Sofitel Hotel and Resort’s world of prestige and luxury.

photos courtesy of Nick Middleton for the Sofitel Saigon Plaza.

“I’m deeply grateful to Sofitel Saigon Plaza for granting me such a fantastic platform to showcase my art. Although I am French, my heart is Vietnamese, and I’m thrilled to share my homage to Vietnam with their guests and visitors during the 60th Anniversary celebration of Sofitel Hotels and Resorts.” – Jérôme Peschard

“Marking 60 years of exceptional hospitality, we take pride in being a part of a legacy that consistently sets the standard for excellence in Asia, providing a unique experience for all modern travellers to explore Ho Chi Minh City through a French-inspired perspective.” – Mario Mendis, GM, Sofitel Saigon Plaza

ABOUT SOFITEL SAIGON PLAZA:

Sofitel Saigon Plaza harmonises the sophistication of French art de vivre with the vibrancy of local Vietnamese culture, delivering a luxury hospitality experience enriched by genuine heartfelt service. Conveniently located in a tranquil enclave on Le Duan Boulevard, Sofitel Saigon Plaza places you in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s business, cultural, and shopping district. The hotel boasts 286 rooms and suites adorned with refined décor and deluxe amenities, a fitness centre featuring advanced exercise equipment, and an outdoor swimming pool with breathtaking city views. Sofitel Saigon Plaza also features five dining establishments serving local and French cuisine, seven polished meeting rooms, and an opulent ballroom equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, making it the ideal destination for business, leisure, meetings, and gatherings.

ABOUT JÉRÔME PESCHARD:

Dubbed the “Gauguin of Vietnam,” Jérôme Peschard is a self-taught artist whose work reflects a life richly lived and creatively charged. His art bridges the past with the present, blending East and West, while drawing profound inspiration from his adopted home of Vietnam. Characterised by the use of oil on rusted corrugated iron sheets salvaged from local construction sites, his pieces reflect the very essence of Saigon – its history, development, people, culture, and vibrant spirit. Peschard’s unique fusion of Western pop art with Asian influences, inspired by comic book legend Jack Kirby and modern art icons like Basquiat and Warhol, continues to evolve as he explores new themes in his storytelling. In the dynamic energy of Vietnam, Peschard not only found his place in the world, but also his distinctive artistic identity.

Join Us MidTown NYC for An Incredible Prosecco Experience: Taste and Discover with Wine Expert Alan Tardi Wed June 26th at New York Wine Studio

Join Us for An Incredible Prosecco Experience: Taste and Discover with Wine Expert Alan Tardi Wed June 26th at New York Wine Studio

Prosecco has gone from a little known mountain fizz to a vinous superhero, overtaking Champagne (and every other sparkling wine out there) and enjoyed by wine drinkers throughout the world, as the base of a cocktail or an everyday quaff. 

But despite its huge popularity, most people don’t know much about it. 

And there is much more to Prosecco than many people are aware.

”My objective is to

clarify the critical differences

between the original ancient Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco and

the DOC Prosecco that was enacted in 2010.” 

Alan Tardi

New York Wine Studio

 

Prosecco is produced only in Italy, in the Northern regions of Veneto and Friuli, and there are three official Prosecco appellations. 

Prosecco DOC

One of them, Prosecco DOC, was created in 2010. It occupies a huge, mostly flat area encompassing almost two entire regions and accounts for most of the 700+ million bottles of Prosecco produced each year.

Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG

Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG is a tiny area in the foothills of the Dolomites consisting of 15 small municipalities in the province of Treviso. This is the ancient winegrowing area where Prosecco was born and made a miraculous comeback in the aftermath of World War II.

New York Wine Studio's Alan Tardi

New York Wine Studio’s Alan Tardi

Besides its pedigree, there are numerous factors of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene enclave that distinguish it from any other winegrowing area in the world: complex and diverse topography, variety of soils, native grape varieties, distinct sub-areas, ancient history, and varied typology—bubbly, fizzy, and still; secondary fermentation in tank or in bottle, leaving sediment in the bottle (known as Ancestral Method) or removing it (Traditional Method).

In this class—which takes place right in the middle of National Prosecco DOC week—we will discuss the origin and evolution of Prosecco in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene area. We will also examine the two additional Prosecco appellations created in 2010. 

But most of the time will be devoted to exploring and tasting Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco through a lineup of 8 exceptional terroir-driven wines, in a variety of styles, that demonstrate the unique characteristics, complexity, and diversity of the original Prosecco.

Participants will also learn how to say “CONEGLIANO VALDOBBIADENE” like an Italian!

Alan Tardi has arranged a fantastic lineup of unusual and exceptional wines (half of them are coming directly from Italy) which demonstrate the various factors that characterize the complexity and uniqueness of Conegliano Valdobbiadene: Different production methods (“Tranquillo” i.e. still, Martinotti, Classico/Traditional, Ancestral); frizzante, spumante; single vineyards, Rive, native grape varieties; diverse, soils, terroirs and topographies.

List of Wines

  1. Prosecco Tranquillo DOCG “Il Canto Antico” — BORTOLOMIOL*
  2. Colli Trevigiani IGT Verdiso Frizzante Sui Lieviti — GREGOLETTO
  3. Progetto 5 Varietà Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG Brut — MARCHIORI* 
  4. Conegliano Prosecco Superiore DOCG Rive di Ogliano Extra-Brut — BIANCAVIGNA
  5. Superiore di Cartizze Brut DOCG — RUGGERI* 
  6. Superiore di Cartizze DOCG “Private” Rifermentato in Bottiglia 2014 — BISOL
  7. Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Rive di Carpesica “S.C. 1931” Metodo Classico — BELLENDA*
  8. Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Asciutto, Rive di Colbertarldo, Vigneto Giardino — ADAMI
  9. Torchiato di Fregona Colli di Conegliano DOCG “Ciàcoe” 2016 — CA’ DI RAJO*

*Shipped directly from the winery in Italy

Find more information and buy tickets at New York Wine Studio or at the link below.

https://www.newyorkwinestudio.com/original-prosecco

 

One comment on “Legendary Restauranteur Joseph Costanzo Jr. Reveals all in Fine Dining Memoir “On The Rocks”

  1. alena boatri says:

    Charming story

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