MONROE — Joe Cortese has been eyeing Monroe for a long time and now he’s finally taken the plunge with the opening of his new restaurant downtown.
“I always wanted to open a place in Monroe,” Cortese said. “Monroe, to me, is a place that needed a good Italian pizza and a good Italian guy running it.”
Cortese hopes to supply both with the arrival of Little Italy’s Peppino’s Pizzeria on Broad Street in Monroe.
His bona fides start early. The son of Italian immigrants, Cortese arrived in America at 12 and by 14 was learning the pizza trade in Brooklyn pizzerias, selling slices at the counter during working hours and watching and practicing the making of pizzas after hours.
“My goal at 15 years old was to open a chain of pizza places,” Cortese said. “And my dream came true with hard work and dedication.”
At 17, Cortese started his first pizzeria in St. Petersburg, Fla., and since then has built up franchises and sold them off, only to start anew, several times.
The Monroe Peppino’s is his latest restaurant, joining similar pizzerias in Athens, Winder and other cities in the area and surrounding states. With a strong Italian accent and tendency to still make many of the pizzas himself, Cortese comes across as the quintessential pizzamaker for a restaurant.
But Cortese is quick to say his success is entirely based on the quality of his pizzas.
“My product is good,” Cortese said. “So people keep coming.”
Cortese comes in each morning, well before time to open, to begin preparing pizza dough for the next day, believing it is important to allow the dough to age a day before using it in the pizza.
“I let it relax,” Cortese said. “It’s more fluffy in your mouth to eat.”
And he said his tomato sauce isn’t as harsh as some places as he leaves out extra flavors like garlic and the like, using little more than fresh tomatoes.
“The way I make my sauce, it’s not thick,” Cortese said. “It’s like eating fresh tomatoes.”
By doing so, Cortese said his pizza is more palatable, even for older customers.
“A lot of older people say they won’t eat pizza because it gives them heartburn,” Cortese said. “They should not be afraid to eat here. I guarantee an older person can eat my pizza.
“I saw an older couple come in, maybe 85 or so, and try my pizza. The next day, they came back and told me it didn’t give them any acid. They ordered another slice right then. And they keep coming back.”
He’s passed on his pizza secrets to the next generation – his son, Frank, owns and runs the Little Italy’s in downtown Athens – but still can’t help but keep coming to work.
“I worked seven days a week when I started,” Cortese said. “I worked hard. That’s how you reach your goals.”
As Peppino’s grows here in Monroe, Cortese is already nearing another goal – to make his restaurant the place to go for Italian pizza.
“It’s been good here,” Cortese said. “We’ve got returning customers coming back now. If they come back, I guess they like it.”