A Day in the Life of the ‘Bread of the Fishermen’
Wherein our intrepid reporter goes in for a cup of Joe.
Joe Virgilio has had a long day. He takes his apron off and calls over, “Hey, Cyn, would you like a cup of coffee?”
How do you like it?”
“Milk, two sugars. Thanks, Joe.”
Joe comes over to the table, sits across from me with our coffees, and yawns.
“Oh sorry — the end of the day, you know?”
Joe is doing me a favor. Having been in this family business since he was a child, he’s had his share of interviews, television coverage, and movie star visits. He is relaxed and comfortable sitting across from me, waiting for my questions — like a kid who is being taught a lesson that he already knows by heart. I turn my tape recorder on, laugh as I test it three or four times and commence with my questions, ones he’s probably been asked so many times before.
This feels very personal to me. Not just because Joe always appears calm and focused, but because I am getting to know a side of him that’s different from Joe the bread baker or Joe the successful business owner. Although, of course, his success has much to do with his personality traits which include humility as well as confidence. Humble people don’t boast about themselves; instead they let their actions speak for them.
Joe is fine with talking about his family and what lead up to the Virgilio’s we are fortunate to have in Gloucester today.
Joe’s grandfather, Giuseppe Virgilio, was born in Sicily in the province of Trapani. This corner of Sicily is stunning, bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the south, and the Strait of Sicily to the west.
“As a young man my grandfather was in the military; after that he worked on cruise ships. Back then, cruise ships were just a ride. He jumped ship in New York, just like all the other illegal immigrants. He knew there was fishing to be had in Gloucester so that’s where he headed.”
“His mother owned a bakery in Trapani when he was a boy. Little hole in the wall. Baked bread, a little bit of cookies. The bakery is still there. It has an old stone oven with small steel door; wood fires. They make bread every day. I went to Sicily and saw the oven. Trapani is about ninety miles from Tunisia. On a clear day, they say you can see it,” Joe smiles. “I didn’t get a clear day. No, there was not a clear day while I was there.”
“Bye, Joe!” a worker waves as he heads for the door. Joe nods and says, “See ya tomorrow.”
“My grandfather fished. He eventually purchased his own boats. Sold the fishing boats when they started having a family. Opened a grocery store. That’s what this was — a grocery store.”
“They moved around — were on Commercial Street, then moved to Western Ave. They bought 2 places. One was their home and the other was a grocery store. They made bread in their basement. Did the same thing when they moved to Washington Street. That was around 1934.
Joe’s grandfather contracted asthma in the 40’s when Joe’s father was 18.
“He sold the store to Joe Trupiano. The doctor suggested my grandfather move to California because of the asthma. It was drier there. No medicines for asthma back then. He never got better, and my grandmother brought him home, basically to die. If he died, at least she’d have family. Not be alone with three kids and no husband.
“So he died then?” I ask.
“No — he got better! He was sick for a while but when he got new medicine, he thrived and lived until the 70s. It wasn’t overnight.
“That’s how they ended up back here. They bought another store, sold chickens and steaks, butchered meat, and stocked shelves. You came in and walked up and down the aisles. They sold milk, butter, dairy — all that stuff.
“How and when did things change?”
“Supermarkets changed everything. We didn’t change it. It was changed. It happened slowly. Slowly. You stop carrying raw meat — just cold cuts — stopped making sausage. We were busy making bread, I imagine. This all happened when I was young. We began making sandwiches. It took a long time. It was not an instant idea. Everything around here is just an idea that happened along the way,” Joe emphasizes this.
“My grandfather used to have a deli case bigger than our cookie case. We’d have all the meats that they had at the supermarket.” Joe stands up. “See this sign here?” He points to the black-and-white photograph just above our heads. “Produce was outside, they sold cold cuts, lettuce, tomatoes, onions — if you lived in the neighborhood, you could get everything you needed.
“When supermarkets came, prices came down for people. They bought in volume. We bought one turkey. They bought cases for their deli. They used to buy and slice cold cuts. No one likes the end. They’d save them and put them in a container. When they had enough of them, they would cut them up and make little sandwiches and sell them for a quarter.
“That, I think, was the beginning of the St. Joseph sandwich. We’d take different types of cold cuts. Little slices — back then it was just small slices of meat. It was only a way to not waste anything. Nothing goes to waste. To this day. I still live that way.
“It was called a St. Joseph’s sandwich because it was on a St. Joseph’s roll. The roll came first. The roll was made for the feast of St. Joseph. You’ll have to talk to someone else about the feast of St Joseph though — I’m not the authority.”
Joe pauses for a moment then looks at me and jokes, “St. Joseph was Jesus’ father.”
“I know that! I was raised Catholic” I tell him, and we laugh.
“When you go to the altar, they give you a lemon, an orange, and a bread,” he said.
“I was told that you were given the bread, so you’d never be hungry, the orange so you’d always stay sweet, and the lemon so you’d never be sour?” I hope this is correct.
“I’m not the authority. My grandparents knew all that. The bread has a cross on the top.” I guess my interpretation was alright by Joe.
But for someone who’s not “an authority,” Joe seems to know a lot.
“Joe, would you be a gentleman and grab me two boxes of that tomato basil.”
“Joe, that’s the last one,” the girl behind counter says.
“I’ll make some more,” Joes says without missing a beat
“See you later,” he waves.
“How many loaves of bread do you make a day?” I ask.
“I don’t know — I don’t count them.”
Joe works longer than Virgilio’s is open. A few of the crew are there at 6:00 am and the store opens at 8:30 am. Bread is in and out of the ovens in an hour. They load up the vans in front and start deliveries.
The bread travels to two Stop and Shops, four Shaw’s, and three Market Baskets.
“Hi Mike,” Joe acknowledges another customer.
“Hey Joe — how ya doin’?”
I proceed. “Do you have a pastry chef?” Really dumb question I realize.
“Yeah — me and Jeff. We don’t make shells, we buy them.”
A customer overhears and yells over, “Too much work to make the shells.”
Joe nods and says, “Nick knows.” Nick says he used to make cannolis with his mom. Joe did with his grandmother.
“With a bamboo stick,” Nick yells over with a laugh. “That’s right. A bamboo stick.”
“Yeah,” Joe replies and they both laugh.
“You’d take a stick, rap the dough around it, and deep fry it. Had to get the stick out without breaking the shell.”
You know those were fun times. Joe offers to give me a tour of the kitchen and says, “You’ve never been back here?”
I laugh. “Why would I have been back here?”
“Come on, I’ll give you the tour,” he says like someone on a TV reality show inviting me into their work space with its magic, like This Old House. Joe points to the flour in the corner. “Lobster rolls.”
“You make lobster rolls?”
“The pastry kind — you’re not the first person to make that comment.”
“Hey Nance — how you doin’?” I’m happy to see her.
Joe met his wife Nancy on a Saturday night at St. Peter’s Fiesta — almost thirty years ago now.
“She was a cheerleader and I was a gearhead,” Joe laughs. “I walked into the Blackburn Tavern on that Saturday night and her brother Dan invited me to a party. Nancy and I talked all night and we’ve been together ever since.”
Soon after they met, Joe and Nancy decided to go to Florida. It was 1989. They both worked two jobs and still couldn’t make ends meet. There was not much work and the only jobs around were paying minimum wage.
“We went home after a year. I knew my father wanted me to come back.”
Nanci worked as an administrative assistant in the superintendent’s office here in Gloucester. She also worked for the Mayor.
“It was either John Bell or Bruce Tobey. John Bell, I think,” Joe said.
When Joe’s father handed over the business to him — and Joe bought his uncle’s half — Nancy came to the store to work and has been there ever since.
When I enter the kitchen, everyone keeps working but all manage to shout out a ‘hello.’ Joe brings me over to the ovens.
“These ovens were made around 1980. They’ll last forever. Gas oven, five shelves. Each oven holds 300 loaves of bread. They’re working all day long.”
Joe points to the corner, “That’s the flour. We’ll use that all week. I don’t count how many bags I have.”
Bread is ready to go into the proofer. (I had no idea what a proofer was, and I wasn’t going to ask, just in case it was something I really should know. It’s a a warming chamber that encourages fermentation of dough by yeast through warm temperatures and controlled humidity.)
“How many different types of bread do you make?” I ask Joe.
“I don’t know. Depends how many customers we have. You don’t have the same customers for life. Other bakers come along and give a better price. I found out that you need to match a price. It’s a game — you can lose a customer over two cents a loaf.
Speaking of money, I ask how Joe keeps track of all of this?
“We still do everything on paper. Believe it or not. It’s in a file cabinet. We get a receipt, they get a receipt. My sister-in-law takes care of it. I don’t really need to know exactly how many loaves of bread we sold this week. Market Basket knows exactly how many loaves of Wonder Bread they sold last week — down to the loaf.”
Joe shows me the bread prepared for the early morning.
“It’s a big job, keeping this going,” Joe says.
The ideas kept coming. Soups started in a little pan. Meatloaf sandwiches were added to the mix. Once again Joe stresses that these were ‘ideas.’
“My cousin Jackie was just out of college, got a job in Boston working for a magazine. She came home one day and said, ‘I had the best sandwich in the North End. It had prosciutto, mozzarella, tomatoes.’
“So we made it — and we called it the North Ender because that’s where it came from. Then we made other sandwiches and had to come up with names for them, too. The West Ender. That’s how our menu all started. We made an Eggplant Sandwich and called it ‘The Eggplant Special.’ A woman asked if we could make it another way and we did but had to come up with another name. We named it the ‘Eggplant Supreme.’”
“And things got better?”
“More better,” Joe jokes.
“One day the guy who brings in cold cuts came in and said the people who make chicken for Applebee’s — or one of those chain restaurants — made the wrong size chicken portions. He told us he had cases of this stuff. All packed and ready to go and at a good price. My father and my uncle said, ‘OK we’ll take them all. Bring us a couple of cases a week.’
“So that’s how it started. Let ’em thaw in the fridge, put them in microwave for a minute, melt cheese on them, and you have a sandwich. And then the chicken ran out.
“So now if you want this, you had to pay three times as much. We said forget that — we got our own chicken and made our own. We know how to cook our own chickens. So, we got chickens, cleaned them, sliced and breaded them and put them in the oven. And that’s how we got chicken. It was by mistake. And that’s the honest-to-God truth about how that happened.” I can’t really picture Joe lying.
“This was not somebody’s light bulb going off in their head. This all happened by accident.”
Joe turns and jokes with a girl.
Focusing again on me he says, “USA Today called the other day. We have a real great opportunity for you — to advertise. I don’t advertise. I tell everyone I don’t advertise. There’s nothing that anyone can do for me in the winter months when it’s slow. I can advertise all I want — it’s not going to change winter business in Gloucester. It is what it is. And in the summer, it’s crazy. People just keep coming and coming and coming. It never stops.”
Joe shakes his head and continues. “I like cooking, I like creating fine food. But it’s a lot of work. At this point, I look forward to five o’clock.
What’s Joe’s favorite food at Virgilio’s?
“There’s not one. I eat here every day. I like everything we make.”
At home Nanci and Joe cook dinner, they also go out once or twice a week.
Which restaurants do they like to go to? I wonder out loud.
“I eat at all the restaurants that buy my bread — and I have a lot to choose from. Tonno’s buys our bread. Passports buys our bread. 525 in Magnolia buys our bread. Lattitude 43. The Boat House in Essex. Azorean and Il Italiano.”
“If they buy my bread, I’m certainly going to buy a meal from them. Of course, we’ll still eat Chinese food and Mexican food when we feel like it. We’re not going to stay away from them just because they don’t serve bread.
“Of course!” I laugh, and Joe smiles back at me.
Joe, unassuming and straight-forward as he is, doesn’t think of himself as necessarily popular or well-known. When asked if everyone in town knows him, he answers, “I don’t know.” He stops then continues, “Well, I know a lot of faces. I don’t know their names. But when I sit outside in the summer, every carload of people that drive by waves, ‘Hi, Joe!’ But mostly, it’s just hello and goodbye. Not intimate conversations.
“But the regular customers are funny. So many of them get the same thing every day. I tell them — go ahead, try something different. But they won’t. They’ll stare at the menu for a minute after I tell them to be adventurous. Then they turn to one of the girls and say, ‘I’d like the St. Joseph.’” Joe laughs. “People are creatures of habit, I guess.”
“Tell me about the music that’s piped onto the street,” I continue.
“My grandfather started that. Records. We used to have an old speaker. The windows were different then.” Joe stands up and goes over to the wall. “See, look at this photo — the speakers were set back — there was a shelf the glass was set in. They’d take house speakers. There was an overhang. They’d hang them upside down and screw them into the wood. Just house speakers outside with a record player. They’d play old songs all the time, Al Martino and stuff like that. The Italians come in and say, ‘Joe, what about some good modern music?’ And I’d say all right and they’d bring me CDs — modern Italian music. I’d put one in and customers would come in, frown and say, ‘What’s this? Where’s the Al Martino?’”
“They don’t want modern music. They want Dean Martin, Al Martino from the ’50s. And we play it all day long. All day long. The girls know every word to every song.”
Joe may not know all the customers’ names, but he knows his team by name and is close and, yes, nurturing, to the faithful college-aged staff. His caring for them is evident and he keeps a watch on them, but also knows and promotes that they find their own way in the world. Just like he had to work it out when he was younger. “It’s up to them. You can’t force anyone to do anything. They’ll find their way.”
Joe talks about the movies that are filmed here and the catering they do.
“It’s all union — they have their own caterers that travel with them everywhere. They cook good food. They bring their kitchen on wheels and buy their own food. From us they buy cookies, cannolis, and our bread that they use for their own sandwiches. The teamsters — guys that drive the trucks — they come here and eat our food.”
It’s hard to look at the side wall and not notice the photo of an amused George Clooney in his flannel shirt and watch cap, smiling and surrounded by the Virgilio family. So, what’s that about?
“Hey Joe,” a girl yells out from the front counter, “We need …”
“OK, I’ll take care of it.”
“He came in one day. It was the last day of the shooting [The Perfect Storm]. It was the shoot where the boat goes down. If you look, you’ll see he was wearing the hat and shirt that he had on during the last scene of the film.
“Clooney says ‘I’m just wondering where this food came from’ — see, the guys would come in here and grab sandwiches and slices of pizza on days that they didn’t feel like eating the catered food.
“He says ‘I’m starving — just give me a piece of pizza and I’ll take some pictures with you guys.” And that’s what he did. Very down to earth, regular guy. Of course, this was before he was famous. Now, he’d never be able to just walk in here. No one else came in. [Mark] Wahlberg didn’t come in.”
It’s almost five when we finish our conversation.
“If you need anything else, just give me a call.”
“I will, thanks, Joe. I really appreciate this.”
Joe will finish what he needs to do before he walks out for the evening. A few hours later, he’ll be back at Virgilio’s making bread, answering questions from his employees, and acknowledging (with just a few words) the many customers coming in and out, in and out.
Jonathan Kozowyk is a commercial photographer based in Boston and New York.
▶︎ Virgilio’s, 29 Main St, Gloucester. (978) 283-5295. Open Monday – Saturday, 8:30 am – 5 pm.