Local restaurateur John Avoletta, the owner of uptown eateries and Lua, remembers that when he was a kid, his grandmother would steal his winter coat to cover her rising pizza dough. Now, after countless pies of his own and two decades in the restaurant business, he’s opened his first Italian kitchen and pizzeria, Johnny Pepperoni, on the corner of 11th and Park.
Avoletta said he wants his new place to be more than just the typical Hoboken pizza joint. “We’re trying to make it comfortable and fun,” he said. And that starts with the name. He explained that when he was a bartender at Hennessy’s Public House, a long-gone downtown bar, his Irish immigrant boss would tease him for being Italian-American and call him Pepperoni. “It was all good, all fun,” said Avoletta, adding that he used the name to evoke a casual, family-friendly atmosphere. “The name is supposed to be fun,” he said, “and hopefully with that, you’ll sit down with no pretenses and the food will come out and you’ll say, ‘It’s good. It’s not Olive Garden.’”
Johnny Pepperoni has the traditional round and square pies as well as sophisticated combinations like prosciutto and arugula, mushroom and fontina. Devised by Avoletta and Chef Will Gioia, who’s worked in top restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, the menu also has appetizers like bruschetta and fritto misto, an array of salads from antipasti to seafood, pasta dishes, and entrees covering most proteins. “We want to sell a ton of pizza,” said Avoletta, “but we want to be known for everything.”
Options are selective for now, said Avoletta, but in the future, there will be daily specials, seasonal changes, and maybe even some exotic items like sardines and octopus. Whatever's on the menu, Gioia said he’s going to make sure it’s fresh. “People are anticipating this,” he said. “They are expecting something good, and we try to give them something special.”
Opening a restaurant any time is risky, but what about doing it in a sluggish economy? “That’s definite insanity,” said Avoletta, who added that he just thought it was the right time for Johnny Pepperoni. After all, he has more than 10 years of experience with his own restaurants in Hoboken.
Avoletta and his late business partner Ken Duda, who owned the first pizzeria Avoletta worked in, turned the old Hoboken Steak House on 14th Street into City Bistro. Avoletta said it was a huge step that he wasn’t prepared for, though he had had previous experience on the business side of restaurants, in addition to being a cook. His family helped out quite a bit and still does, he said. At the time, his mother even took out a mortgage on her house to fund his dream. “It was definitely a leap of faith,” said Avoletta.
But much like he wants Johnny Pepperoni to be more than just another pizzeria, he said, City Bistro was not just another Hoboken bar. “We were doing seared scallops with risotto and truffle butter, chicken and polenta,” said Avoletta. “We weren’t just the wing and the pizza.”
After six years with their first restaurant, the partners opened the chic Miami-inspired Lua right on the waterfront. “Lua was so abstract and far away from Bistro,” said Avoletta, “and that was on purpose.” While City Bistro attracts a casual, local crowd, “Lua is an event,” said Avoletta. The upscale eatery has hosted plenty of celebrities and even been the locale for a segment of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New Jersey. “It’s fun when you’re famous enough to have shows that want to go on and be there,” said Avoletta. “It’s a cool feeling.” He added that the filming boosted business, but he’s not a huge fan of the show. “I’d rather see Mariano Rivera in there,” he said.
Despite its success, Lua was forced to close temporarily in January after the portion of Frank Sinatra Drive in front of the restaurant collapsed last October and continued to get worse. “Once that road and sidewalk came down, they had to shut me down,” said Avoletta, adding that he credits the Hoboken Fire Department and its effort to keep the area safe with being able to stay open as long as he did. And so with Lua closed and its reopening date still undetermined, Avoletta was a bit apprehensive about Johnny Pepperoni. “We were nervous about the future of Lua, so going into a new venture was equally as scary,” he said.
But Avoletta says he and his team at the new restaurant have gotten positive feedback so far. And if the good reviews continue, there might be another Johnny Pepperoni in the future.