“The intangibles that enabled me to achieve my greatness also contained the seeds to my destruction.” – Joseph Costanzo, Jr.
The behind-the-scenes true story of Pittsburgh area restaurateur Joseph Costanzo, Jr., is a study in contradictions. A complex character, Costanzo was at once confident yet unaware; generous yet egotistical; and meticulous yet careless.
The son of Italian immigrants, Costanzo turned the blue collar burb of McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, into a sought-out destination for fine Italian dining at The Primadonna, which in its heyday drew the attention of celebrities, sports icons and well-known journalists — and eventually the federal government.
Known for its signature Southern Italian dishes that nourished stomachs and souls, The Primadonna’s generous portion sizes were eclipsed only by Costanzo’s larger-than-life personality, explains his daughter Maria C. Palmer.
“The moment that you walked in, regardless of how busy we were, my dad was at the front of the house, and he was greeting you,” Palmer recalled during a recent interview. “My dad was invested in customers. He wanted to be part of people’s lives. I think that’s what makes this experience so memorable. People loved being special.”
In her new book, On the Rocks, Palmer and co-author Ruthie Robbins, who was Palmer’s high school English teacher, open a door to the past and welcome readers to The Primadonna, where Costanzo treated neighborhood regulars with the same warmth and hospitality with which he greeted the likes of Danny Aiello, Jamie Lee Curtis and Tommy Lasorda.
Written from Costanzo’s perspective, On the Rocks traces his unlikely rise from a postal worker with an impossible dream to owner of a nationally acclaimed restaurant. Along the way, On the Rocks serves up quirky characters, entertaining stories, delectable dishes, celebrity sightings, great memories and enduring friendships.
A classic example of blind ambition, Costanzo is at once the driving force behind his success and the cause of his own downfall. And as the story unfolds, readers follow Costanzo from the day-to-day frenzy of a hot-spot restaurant to life behind bars.
“The restaurant was like his third child; it was the son he never had,” Palmer reflected. “He was at the top of his game when everything spiraled out of control. That’s what makes this story so rich. He really did the impossible. He took this nothing, failing business and turned it into this diamond in the rough. Then it all got pulled away. Just as fast as it rose, it fell.”
About the Authors
Maria Costanzo Palmer is a writer and Page Turner Award Finalist for her co-authored book, On the Rocks. She is also a regular co-moderator for the Food Is Religion Club on Clubhouse. A former host on L.A. Talk Radio, she was recently featured on Food and Beverage Magazine Live, a nationally syndicated podcast, as well as iHeartRadio. Her writing has been published in OC87 Recovery Diaries, and she has made a number of media appearances.
Growing up as the oldest child of an award-winning restaurateur, Palmer unexpectedly became a daughter of the incarcerated. This experience ignited an interest in working for Get on the Bus, a nonprofit dedicated to uniting children with their incarcerated parents.
Ruthie Robbins is an award-winning educator who worked for the Montour School District in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and for Johns Hopkins Talent Development Secondary. Robbins now teaches English and Language Arts in Buffalo, New York. Well-known as co-creator of a popular amusement park interdisciplinary unit, she is currently working on other books and is preparing to launch The Writing Factory Online, a comprehensive writing program for middle schools.
For more information, please visit www.mariacpalmer.com or www.ruthierobbins.com; or connect with the authors on Facebook: www.facebook.com/joecostanzoprimadonna; Instagram: www.instagram.com/joecostanzoprimadonna; Twitter: www.twitter.com/mariacpalmer; Clubhouse: @maria.palmer; and LinkedIn: Maria Costanzo Palmer and Ruthie Robbins.
On the Rocks
Publisher: Koehler Books
Release Date: August 8, 2023
ISBN-13: 979-8-88824-027-4 (soft cover)
ISBN-13: 979-8-88824-029-8 (hard cover)
ISBN-13: 979-8-88824-028-1 (e-book)
Available for pre-order from Amazon.com and at the Senator John Heinz History Center
Reviews, photos, links to previous interviews and Q&As are available upon request.