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On the Rocks: The Primadonna Story launches in style

Photos by Sonja Reis – Former restauranteur Joe Costanzo Jr. shakes hands with Father Regis Ryan during a special book signing event at Mancini’s Bakery in Stowe Township Aug. 8.

By Elizabeth Perry

Mancini’s Bakery on Woodward Avenue in Stowe was host to a unique event on Aug. 8 – a book signing celebrating The Primadonna Restaurant and its larger-than-life owner, Joseph Costanzo Jr.

“On the Rocks: The Primadonna Story” details the life of Costanzo, a restaurateur who achieved dazzling success serving Italian cuisine in McKees Rocks, only to have that success dulled by a stint in prison.

The book, written by Costanzo’s daughter Maria Costanzo Palmer and Ruthie Dines Robbins, Palmer’s former Montour High School teacher, doesn’t hold back when it comes to “the hard things.”

“We were really the family at the head of everything and then suddenly we weren’t,” Palmer said.

The book signing, which took place in the back of the bakery next to racks of fresh bread. Mancini’s owner, Mary Hartner said her family and the Costanzo family had long-standing connections.

Donna Costanzo and Joe Costanzo Jr., husband and wife, personally greeted the more than 100 attendees who came to have their copy of “On the Rocks: The Primadonna Story” signed Aug. 8.

“We used to sell bread to Joe back when he ran The Primadonna,” Hartner said.

The Primadonna Restaurant was named for Costanzo’s wife, Donna and it also means “First Lady” in Italian. Costanzo, a former postal worker, opened the restaurant in 1986 when Palmer was 4 and her sister Kelly just 9 months and she has often said the place was like a third sibling. Costanzo’s parents were first-generation Italian immigrants; his mother hailed from Abruzzi and his father from Calabria.

Costanzo grew up in the Greenfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh and fought to be accepted in McKees Rocks as an outsider.

“He didn’t know one person,” Parker said.

He did that through the quality of his food and the force of his personality.

Costanzo knew every customer by name and would give away free fried zucchini with every meal.

Former customer and good friend, Dale Sleva said whenever anyone went into the Primadonna, Costanzo would say, “Have a free zucchini, on the house.”

Sleva said Costanzo knew the name of every returning customer, regardless of how long it had been since they’d last visited.

He said Costanzo had a “photographic memory.”

After positive reviews of the food ignited interest, the restaurant took off and became a destination for diners outside of The Rocks. The press release for the book touts all the famous people who came to dine at The Primadonna, like Danny Aiello, Pat Sajak, Jamie Lee Curtis and Tommy Lasorda. Costanzo was voted one of America’s top restaurateurs by The International Restaurant and Hospitality Rating Bureau, according to Food & Beverage Magazine.

For 16 years, the 83-seat restaurant served the area garnering accolades, until everything fell apart. In May 2002, Costanzo came under scrutiny by the IRS.

Constanzo sold the restaurant and faced federal prison. He lost his kidneys due to complications with diabetes and is the recipient of two transplants.

In the synopsis of talking points about the book, Costanzo is described as the “protagonist and antagonist,” of the story. The tale is 17 years in the making, being developed over time to embrace the painful parts of the story as well as the triumphs.

“My book is almost of legal voting age,” Palmer said.

Co-author Robbins is a family friend who lived a street over from the Primadonna and was a customer there even before she taught Palmer. She’s helped develop the story for many years.

Through Robbins’ writer group, she honed the voice to sound closer to her father’s at the suggestion of true crime writer Lisa Redmond.

Palmer knew the truth of what happened was all documented and available through an online

Co-writers Maria Costanzo Palmer and Ruthie Dines Robbins sign a book at the launch party event held at Mancini’s in Stowe.

search, so leaving out the tough stuff – the prison stint and the crimes that led to it – wouldn’t serve the story. She used the example of James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” as an example of a memoir that shaded and bent the truth, losing all legitimacy in the process.

“It’s a well-written book, but he compromised the integrity of his book. It became a laughing stock,” Palmer said.

She didn’t want that to happen to her or her father. Instead, she explained that the book was an opportunity to, “take back our own pen.”

Palmer said she and her father always had a strong relationship, back from when she worked in the restaurant. Her family is “not one to be quiet or hide things.”

Writing the book brought them even closer, as she was on the phone with her dad about “80 times a day.”

“I think this book has been a really redemptive process for us,” Palmer said.

Costanzo said his daughter was able to capture a lot of what happened to him, because she’d been there.

“Without her, the history would’ve been lost, but now it’s here forever,” Costanzo said.

The first-time author faced a lot of rejection. Palmer and Robbins queried more than 200 agents; half ghosted them, 17 requested pages and only one saw the unique potential in the story.

Despite that, there is already interest in turning the tumultuous tale into a movie, as the film rights are being shopped around by Amanda Raymond of 13 Curves Productions. Palmer says the takeaway of the story is that her father is such a compelling subject because of his imperfections.

“Everybody’s human, everybody makes mistakes, it’s about what you do with those and what you learn,” Palmer said.

“On the Rocks: The Primadonna Story” is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.



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