MADISON, NJ - Hard work pays off. Just ask Madison business owner Rocco Iossa, who at 16-years-old opened the first pizzeria in Morris County and with his family grew it into a successful chain of eateries.
Now, 52 years later, Rocco’s Tuscany Bar and Grill still serves the families who became his patrons in1960. “We have three and four generations of families who come here regularly. It’s like one big extended family,” Rocco said.
Rocco arrived in Madison from Marigliano, Italy and along with his brother Frank and father, a rose gardener, came up with the $5,000 to buy their first pizzeria, Frank’s on Park Ave. The establishment has known many names since, including Top Notch, 4 Park Avenue Trattoria, and most recently, Chutney & Co.
But the original pizzeria was much quainter. “It was an old house, about 10 feet wide with a three-foot counter just big enough to serve up pizza pies. It was very small and very busy in those years,” Rocco said.
Working seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day was the norm, Iossa says. “The whole family pitched in.” Rocco had a culinary degree from Italy and his wife Janet, who he met six months after immigrating to the U.S., introduced a great number of recipes to the menu.
Over the years the Iossas owned The Meeting Place, Rocco’s Pizzeria, Rocco’s Restaurant and J.R.’s Park Ave Tavern. All five of their children helped in the kitchens or in management. “I define my success by the fact that my family all worked together,” he said. “We established a reputation and my greatest pleasure is seeing people who keep coming back.”
Today Iossa’s sole establishment at 30 Cook Avenue serves between 2,000 and 3,000 people each week. Son Gino churns home-style dishes out of the kitchen day and night, and a few doors down, son Joey owns 54 Main.
You have to have a passion for it to make it, Gino says. “It’s long hours and you’re on your feet a lot.” He loves it so much he has a hard time playing favorites. “I love all cooking. It’s hard to say which dishes I like best.”
Customers love Gino’s zeppoles - one of his mother’s recipes - deep-fried dough that Gino describes as “a light puff pastry.” Patrons should keep their eyes out for specials like Filet mignon au poivre, which Gino makes with a brandy peppercorn cream sauce, and a veal pepper platter in pomodoro sauce.
In an area saturated with pizza places, Gino promises only the best. “We use the most high quality and freshest ingredients. They are made fresh daily, which means a lot since my dad opened the first five pizzerias in Morris County. The name goes a long way and we want to maintain top quality,” Gino said. Gino goes to farmer’s markets and to Madison Seafood in Newark (which opened in Madison) four times a week for vegetables and seafood.
Pizza pies run from the most traditional cheese for $7.50 to specialty options like portobello and shitake mushrooms with sun-dried tomato for $11.95.
Also on the menu are appetizers like fried calamari—at $9.95 and crab cakes with bruschetta and arugula for $10.95. Homemade lasagna is $14.95 and specialty dishes like veal saltimbocca and stuffed shrimp run $19.95 and up.
In addition to serving in-house, Rocco’s also caters local businesses and schools. They participate yearly in Madison’s Bottle Hill Day and host fundraisers, christenings, and once, a wedding.
Getting out into the community is important, Gino believes. After Hurricane Sandy he and Rocco brought a trailer with a 10-pie oven to the shore and served up over 200 pizzas, 75 to 100 gallons of soup and dozens of trays of pasta.
The Iossas lost their home in Ortley Beach, but what prompted the outreach was a news video of a little boy. “I kept looking at the kid—he had lost everything. I have boys. This boy had nothing. It just broke my heart,” Gino said.
Five customers volunteered to go down with the Iossas and they served up the food through the Church of Grace and Peace in Tom’s River. “We got so many hugs. They were so thankful. And so were we.”