– In a town that for years has been rapidly growing, Alfonso De
Alba says he doesn’t want to see big changes as the new owner of
the iconic Gilroy eatery: Joe’s Italian Restaurant. De Alba, 38,
became the official owner Feb. 1.
By Jen Penkethman
Special to the Dispatch
Gilroy – In a town that for years has been rapidly growing, Alfonso De Alba says he doesn’t want to see big changes as the new owner of the iconic Gilroy eatery: Joe’s Italian Restaurant. De Alba, 38, became the official owner Feb. 1.
“I was interested in something family-owned, with a history,” said De Alba. “The community grew up with this establishment. I wanted to continue something already established.”
Opened during a time when Gilroy boasted less than 10,000 people, more than 25 years ago, Joe’s Italian Restaurant has long been a staple of the Gilroy restaurant scene. Founder Joe Bertolone – the restaurant’s namesake – emigrated from Italy 30 years ago with his wife Elvira. Around Joe’s Restaurant, the keyword is family – every guest is treated as warmly as a family member. Mama Elvira has a habit of greeting customers with a warm hug – even those she has never met. De Alba said it was this atmosphere which convinced him, almost immediately, to buy the restaurant.
“You have no idea how wonderful the customers here are,” said De Alba. “Some of them came as kids, and now they’re adults and bring their own kids. There are people from San Jose, Salinas, even people from out-of-state, like families from Florida who come to eat here once a year, every year.”
De Alba grew up in San Jose, where he got his first restaurant experience, managing a pizzeria. He recently relocated his family, including his wife, Carmen, and two children, Alan and Ashley, to a home in Gilroy. His children now attend Luigi Aprea. On their first night in Gilroy, in December, the De Albas took a drive down the festive, well-lit streets, looking around in amazement.
“My daughter said, ‘this is Christmastown!’ ” said De Alba. “It’s a great community overall. I want to have my kids grow up in a community like this.”
De Alba says restaurants are a lifelong passion, largely because of how they can connect families. So far, he has recruited his sister, brother-in-law, a nephew who now attends Gilroy High School, and a niece from San Jose to come to Gilroy and work at his restaurant.
“There is something about community building, when you serve and enjoy a meal,” he said. “It’s part of trust and relationships. If someone’s had a stressful day, it’s my responsibility to see them leave with a smile.”
De Alba had been working in other jobs, at a packing company and as an administrator at San Jose State University, before he found a chance to own a restaurant of his own. After responding to an advertisement on the Internet, De Alba visited Joe’s, where he said he knew he had found something good right away.
“I walked in the door and I was sold,” he said. “Papa Joe told me, be nice to your customers, and they’ll be nice to you. I said, ‘oh man, this is it.’ ”
Inside the restaurant, which has never moved from its location on 10th Street just west of Monterey Road in Gilroy, the walls are covered with photographs of Joe’s family: baby pictures, family portraits, and a black-and-white photo of Joe and Elvira Bertolone as young newlyweds in Italy. Masks from Venice create a centerpiece above the tables. De Alba and Bertolone sit at a table talking easily, as though they’ve known each other for years instead of weeks. And in the kitchen, Elvira is always working, creating her pasta, pizza and breads from scratch.
Most of the decorations, including vintage Italian posters, belong to the Bertolones and De Alba will have to replace them. Other than this minor change, De Alba wants to keep the restaurant much as it is. “I’m not changing the food at all,” said De Alba, whose favorite dish at Joe’s Italian is the tortellini alla romana.
“Mama Elvira will teach me and my family how to make everything. Any changes I make will be in view of what the customers want, and I don’t know what they want yet.”
When the subject of the new restaurants in the shopping center farther down 10th Street came up, De Alba said that they would not influence the way he runs the restaurant.
“I’m not here to compete with them,” he said. “I just want to keep it how it is. How many of those restaurants can say they have a history, a relationship with the community that goes back 25 years?”
The only real change will be the absence of Joe and Elvira Bertolone, who De Alba says will be missed.
“The community has to come experience Joe’s,” said De Alba. “They should come over and say farewell to Joe and Elvira. This is an experience for everyone in Gilroy.”