For decades, Giacomo Jack Brucia, 62, has taken Mondays off after working long days at his restaurants.
This week, his Monday off was the first day of his retirement after 37 years in the restaurant business in Charlotte. Fontanella Italiano Ristorante in Matthews, the restaurant his family most recently owned, will now be operated by Joe Hernandez.
We are going to step out and this beautiful family is going to come in, Brucia said. My heart loves restaurants, but my body cant take it any more.
The pots are getting too heavy for Brucia to carry around the kitchen, and the long workdays are taking a toll. Brucia wants to spend more time with his family 30 family members live within a one-mile radius of his Matthews home although he doesnt rule out an occasional visit to the Fontanella kitchen.
Brucias family, which includes younger brothers Frank and Joe, have owned 22 restaurants over the decades. When they arrived in Charlotte almost 40 years ago they knew little about the city other than that it lacked one thing: authentic Italian food.
Brucia is originally from Alcamo, Sicily, where his father operated vineyards. Looking for a better life in the United States, the family immigrated to New Jersey in the late 1960s, and the three brothers began learning the restaurant business. When they moved to Charlotte in early 1970s, they planned to become the first Italians in town cooking Italian food for a restaurant.
In the early 1970s, Brucia said, Charlotte was still a small town. Italian restaurant chains such as Maggianos, Carrabbas and even Olive Garden were far in the future. Many of Charlottes Italian restaurants were operated by Greeks.
Brucia had been working with a restaurant owner in New Jersey who wanted to open an Italian restaurant in Charlotte, but Brucia ended up taking over the restaurant himself before it opened. The New Jersey restaurateur already had built the sign naming the restaurant Carlos, and Brucia kept the moniker.
Passion for pizza dough
Carlos Italian Restaurant, a pizzeria, opened on North Tryon Street in 1974. The restaurant served traditional Sicilian-style pizza cooked on metal trays lined with Crisco shortening, which made the dough crunchy.
Longtime customer Lou Lagana said that his parents, who were from Italy, certified that the pizza tasted like home.
I was born in Brooklyn, so my parents were sticklers for good food, Lagano said. My father said it was good Italian pizza, that it was like New York pizza.
Carlos opened in relative obscurity, but after a 1978 restaurant review by Louise Lione in The Charlotte Observer, in which she praised the food and described the service as unfailingly pleasant, Brucias restaurant took off.
Jack, Joe and Frank opened Carlos restaurants in seven locations over three decades, including restaurants in Dilworth, at Independence Boulevard and Sharon Amity Road, in north Charlotte, on South Boulevard and two on North Tryon Street.
Brucias Don Peppinos on Park Road in Dilworth was designed for fine dining rather than as a pizzeria, but the concept originally fell flat. After six months, Brucia made some small but game-changing alterations. He added pizza to the menu and switched the name to Carlos. Soon, the restaurant was so popular that 20 or 30 people could be waiting in line for dinner at 10 p.m., Brucia said.
Brucia is ending his career at Fontanella, which means small fountain in Italian. The restaurant, which opened about 10 years ago in the Matthews Festival shopping center off Independence Boulevard, serves the same pizza, chicken Parmesan and lasagna that have drawn customers for years.
Brucia remembers planning a quiet opening for Fontanella so he that could have a few easy weeks to train his staff.
After 30 years in the Charlotte area, though, he had developed such a loyal customer base that they were eager to try his new restaurant. The wait for a table was 90 minutes the first night.
We tried not to advertise, Brucia said. It was a soft opening, but it was chaos.
The restaurant, which has an outdoor and an indoor fountain, a $6.99 lunch buffet and a gelato stand, has continued to draw regular customers.
Woven into citys fabric
During his career in Charlotte, Brucia has served everyone from Neil Diamond to Keanu Reaves. The first Carlos became a popular gathering place for NASCAR drivers and team owners as well as NBA players from the then-Charlotte Hornets.
The following over the years has been amazing, said Pete Brucia, Jack Brucias son. Customers track them down (when they open new restaurants) and they all show up.
When he became serious about retiring, Brucia offered to sell Fontanella to Hernandez, a native of El Salvador who recently sold Mamas Pizza on Idlewild Road in Matthews.
I like the restaurant here, and Ive known (Jack) for a long time, Hernandez said.
His four children also will work in the restaurant, keeping alive the traditions of hard work and family working together that Brucia treasures.
For the Brucia brothers, owning and operating restaurants in Charlotte have allowed their families to work together and stay close. Many of their children have grown up at the restaurants, and other relatives have pitched in.
Brucias brother Joe, 60, also will retire from the restaurant business, while his brother Frank, 47, is looking for a corporate job in food services.
Jack Brucia quietly told customers for several weeks of his retirement plans, and told them hed go without fanfare. He assured them that Fontanella will not change.
Hernandez, who once worked for Brucia, was at the restaurant for several weeks before Brucias exit, learning the recipes and the restaurants operation.
They are adamant that nothing will change at Fontanella except that, starting in January, it will be open on Mondays.
This is my second family, said Brucia, putting his arm around Hernandez. But they are taking my heart.