‘I’m A Simple Person From Sicily’
While most 16-year-old Americans were getting their driver licenses, Giuseppe Farruggio was starting his own pizza empire.
In 1970, after seven years of immigration processes and paperwork, the Sicilian-born teen immigrated to New York City. In the middle of a 20-year wave of Italian immigration, Giuseppe knew he had to stand out from his counterparts.
‘My aunt says, ‘I recommend that you learn the pizza business because a lot of the people with a pizzeria do very well.’ By 16, I already liked to make money. I figured I was in America, so I changed my name to Joe so I’d fit in, and I started making pizza.’
There was a lot of competition in New York among young Italian pizza makers. On a tour of DC to celebrate the Feast of St. Anthony, Joe didn’t see any pizzerias. He made a note of it, and returned to New York, where he continued to learn his craft.
‘I learned from genius and I learned from dummies. I saw people who were smart doing really well, and people who were not that smart, still doing OK. I know I could at least do better than that.’
After eight years selling pizza by the slice with cans of Coke, Joe found a job in Virginia. After the pizzeria received a lot of positive press with Joe in the kitchen, he realized he was good enough to start his own restaurant. He opened Joe’s Place Pizza and Pasta in 1978, on his 25th birthday.
The New York-style pizzeria did well, growing into a small chain of six throughout the DMV. But after a big life change left Joe off-kilter, he closed several of the restaurants and threw himself into running. Over the next eight years, he completed 16 marathons around the world.
In 2009, a friend suggested Joe partner with him on a Neopolitan pizza concept. Joe traveled to Naples, and was smitten with what he tasted.
‘I was already making New York pizza for 38 years. My commitment is always to make the best pizza I can. I started really getting into Neopolitan, I loved it. I started doing some research, started eating it in the best places in Naples twice a year. I said, ‘Wow, I think I want to do this.’’
Joe found a location on 31st Street and opened the new restaurant, but the venture lasted a mere three months.
‘The partners had an Italian mentality. If a customer came in and say this pasta is too al dente, the cook would say, ‘In America they have to learn how to eat Italian.’ I said, 'This is not the way we do business in America, my friend. They want to eat what they like, not what you think they like.’'
Still, Joe wasn’t ready to give up. After closing the restaurant, he spent the next 6 months improving the original concept, changing the menu—except for the classic Neopolitan pizza—and renaming it Il Canale, after the neighboring C&O Canal.
In January 2010, Joe trained the new staff for two weeks, and did a friends and family soft-opening for 400 people. Il Canale was scheduled to open to the public the next day.
That night, DC was hit with three feet of snow.
‘We didn’t open all week. We lost a lot of food, all that preparation, and half the staff left because they figured we’ve been training for so long and now snow, we’re not going to open.’
Joe trained their replacements; then, another setback.
‘Guess what? There was a second snow storm, another three feet of snow. Another hit, another week closed. It almost kept me out of business.’
Il Canale finally opened, but it wasn’t until another act of mother nature that business took off. In April, the Georgetown waterfront flooded, all of the restaurants at Washington Harbour temporarily closed. Joe’s business doubled that day, and hasn’t dipped since.
The restaurant prides itself on authenticity, certified by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana for meeting its strict requirements for traditional Neopolitan pizza making.
‘You’ve gotta have 00 flour, the right tomatoes and mozzarella. The dough mixer has to churn in a certain way. And you need the right pizza oven. For Neopolitan, the oven dome is lower because the heat goes right on top the pizza. It’s 800 to 900 degrees, and cooks in between 60 and 90 seconds.’
Famous journalists, politicians, and actors—from Jay Leno to Hillary Clinton, Harrison Ford, the Obama daughters, Queen Latifah, and, most recently, the White House staff for their holiday party—have high praise for Il Canale. Their pictures with Joe adorn the restaurant walls, often autographed. Yet it’s the pizzeria’s Italian fan base that means the most to him.
‘When I come here on Sunday, after I go to the Italian church Holy Rosary, I see 20, 30 Italians eating with the kids and family. There’s real support from the Italian community. They all pass the word, especially the traveling diplomats. We become the place where the Italians go to eat, and I’m very, very proud of that.’
It’s certainly where Joe eats—rarely going 24 hours without pizza. A fan of the classic margharita—sometimes with anchovies—Joe says Neopolitan pizza is like soul food.
‘You can’t get tired of it. It’s very simple; no butter, not much fried stuff. It’s olive oil, garlic, tomato sauce. In America, you grow up with all the food in the world. Italy is becoming that way, but I’m coming from a small village. There was no hot dogs, no hamburgers. We only had our local food that changed by season. That’s pretty much what we do here, with simple ingredients. When I taste the food, I want to make sure it takes me back to Italy.’
And yet, at 64, Joe says his true home is Georgetown.
‘I’m a simple person from Sicily who just came here to do the best I know how, and to get this kind of recognition is stunning. The American Dream is still alive. If I can do it, it’s doable. I didn’t come to America with money in the bank. We were immigrants like everyone else. You don’t know how grateful I am. Because I couldn’t do what I’ve done here in my country. I love my country, but I love America more. With my heart.’