"The Sinatra music starts at 10 in the morning and goes until we close at four in the afternoon," says Joseph "Sparky" Spaccavento, 77, as he sits in the back room of Piccolo's, the Clinton Street neighborhood grill he opened in 1955.
On the restaurant's walls in every room, Sinatra smiles down from hundreds of photographs. "No one else had that kind of charisma and charm," Spaccavento says of Ol' Blue Eyes. "Even though we play his CDs every day, I'll never get tired of hearing that voice. If it wasn't for [Sinatra] and all of the school that I missed to go see him, I could have been a lawyer today."
Born and raised Hobokenite
In some ways, the Spaccavento story is a little like that of his idol. Both are Italians from Hoboken who rose from modest beginnings. "I grew up at 109 Clinton, just a couple feet away from [where Piccolo's is today]," Spaccavento said. "I remember when horse and carriages would pass by our house. I remember playing stick ball, box ball and wall ball out on the street."
When Spaccavento was just 13 years old, he got a job as a delivery boy at a small Italian deli at 306 First St. When he turned 16, his family bought a small butcher's shop at 504 Jefferson St. When meat became expensive and scare during the Korean War the store was forced to close.
Soon afterwards, Spaccavento had the idea to open a small restaurant that served clams, hamburgers, hotdogs, and cheesesteaks. In 1953, he bought a plot of land near the corner of Newark and Clinton streets from the city for $1,000. In 1955 he opened Piccolo's Clam Bar. During the restaurant's early days, Piccolo's was known for its clams. Every evening, they would roll out a wagon and serve clams out on the street until late at night.
A very different Hoboken
"When we first opened, Hoboken was a plywood town," Spaccavento said. He said that many of the city's buildings were dilapidated and boarded up.
There were also ethnic tensions. Most of the original Italian immigrants settled on the west side. Willow Avenue was the divide between the Irish and the Italians. This arbitrary border stayed firm until the 1970s. Traveling outside of one's neighborhood would often result in a brawl.
These tensions were very pronounced in the 1960s when the city was marred in a local depression. Industry had left town, which ushered a period of poverty and widespread unemployment. Crime was high and there was even the occasional riot.
Spaccavento said that it was no longer safe operating a nighttime business in what had become a dangerous neighborhood. "We had to pull the wagon inside, and we decided that it was time to start a daytime business," he said. Spaccavento served the last clam at Piccolo's in 1968.
Today the restaurant is known for its cheesesteaks. Spaccavento said that his training as a butcher has been the key to their success over the years. Piccolo's sandwiches are 100 percent rib eye steak, which is boned and cut by hand. "What you get here is real steak in a sandwich," Spaccavento said. Over the years, many other Italian businesses may have closed or left town, but Piccolo's is still going strong. "My generation is all but gone now, so it's time for the new generation to come in and take things over," Spaccavento said.
Spaccavento's son Patty now runs the daily operations. But the restaurant still runs the old fashioned way. "We've gone 52 years and haven't changed the way we do things," Spaccavento said. He added that he expects Patty to keep up the traditions that have made the restaurant a Hoboken legend.
"I'll break his legs if I ever catch him taking the easy way out," he said.
Piccolo's is located at 92 Clinton St. For more information, call (201) 653-0564.