by Chris Langathianos with Joe Wilkins
Joe Thomas plays his 90-year-old family piano, handed down to him by his Uncle Barney, with a wide-eyed grin – his head swaying with each note. Then a sweet voice creeps in singing the melody to Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55”.
“Well my time went so quickly, I went lickety-splitly out to my old ‘55 As I drove away slowly, feeling so holy, God knows, I was feeling alive.”
Thomas looks to his right with a look of pride and adoration as Memory Layne effortlessly glides through the classic song. This is not an uncommon scene at Giuseppe’s Ristorante, which has in the course of its 3 years, become a dining and live music staple on the Gloucester night life scene. Serendipitously, this is how the story begins – 5 summers ago at a piano not far from here.
Joe Thomas and Memory Layne met while Joe was hosting a piano bar at the former Studio Restaurant on Rocky Neck. One evening, she called out from the back of the restaurant requesting a favorite song, All I Want From You, and Joe, looking up from the piano, replied, “Can you sing it?”
They have been accompanying each other ever since that night, only the stage has changed. After meeting that summer, the two lived an idyllic, seaside relationship – filled with walks on the beach, great food, music and cocktails – but the season’s end inevitably rolled around. Thomas had to pack his bags and begin his annual winter pilgrimage to warmer climates, where he could be found playing piano and singing familiar songs for vacationers escaping the New England cold.
“I wish I could stay longer ‘cause this feeling’s getting stronger.”
For Joe and Memory, this was a crossroads of sorts and the already romantically involved pair knew what they had to do. They wanted to share their music year-round, and that’s when they decided to create their own special piano bar on Cape Ann where guests could enjoy the same great food, music and company that originally brought the two of them together. They had come full circle.
Fast forward to Giuseppe’s 3-year anniversary. Roughly 100 friends and family members gather at Giuseppe’s to celebrate the occasion. As the piano plays in the background, various guests get up and accompany Joe on vocals, from piano bar regular “Wild Bill” Shepherd to local musicians Bradley Royds and Brian King. The steady stream of guests seem to revel in the fact that they are a part of the 3 year celebration. Joe and Memory’s vision has been truly realized. Over the course of the last several years, the restaurant has become a live music staple in the arts-rich, Cape Ann community. Guests will find live music 5 nights a week – from piano bar on Fridays and Saturdays to acoustic performances on Wednesdays and Sundays. The popular Thursday night Singer-Songwriter Shufﬂe, allows guests to catch 20 minute sets from 7 of the area’s best songwriters, including the likes of Chelsea Berry, Allen Estes, Joe Wilkins, and AnnMarie Shiminoski, to name a few. Giuseppe’s commitment to the arts however, extends beyond the local music scene. Glancing past the piano, one can’t help but notice the giant canvas prints – the work of local photographer, Brendan Pike. Each print highlights something of significance at Giuseppe’s – pizza, cannolis, the piano, a microphone. Elsewhere on the brick walls, watercolors by Memory Layne add a splash of seaside color to the restaurant’s interior.
By design, the space has a uniquely handcrafted, almost home-like feel. When asked about the Giuseppe’s experience, Memory says, “we do everything we can to make people feel as if they are a guest in our home – from the moment they walk in the door until they leave.”
And indeed, this welcoming philosophy is evident each time a guest walks through the door. The hospitable staff, while working hard to keep partiers happy, are also greeting familiar guests and regulars with warm hugs and familiar conversation. This has been just one part of Giuseppe’s formula for success – getting to know people.
Restaurant regulars Steve O’Connell and Amy Sweeney gushed about how the restaurant is a “warm and welcoming place where old friends meet new friends. It has wonderful food and an eclectic mix of music and artists. Best of all, Joe and Memory make you feel like you’re not in a restaurant, but in their home.”
Giuseppe’s holds a unique place in Gloucester’s rich culinary landscape. While the restaurant celebrates its 3-year anniversary in the old Blackburn Building, the concept is rooted in a 25-year family tradition. Joe’s sister, Julie, opened the first Giuseppe’s Ristorante & Pizzeria in Meredith, NH in 1989 and Joe has spent a lot of time playing piano on their stage. That was the inspiration for Giuseppe’s Gloucester – authentic Italian pizza and cuisine in a warm environment, surrounded by good music. Asked what she would tell a first-time guest to order, Memory pauses and says, “I generally ask what they’re in the mood for – pizza, pasta, chicken, or seafood? I’lI often recommend our pizza because that’s what Giuseppe’s was built on and it’s part of our 25 plus years of history. If they want pasta, I’ll tell them to build their own from the “Pasta-bilities” section of our menu. A favorite of ours is the Creme Rosa sauce with the pasta of your choice. Oh and everyone raves about our Spinach Roll!”
Regulars might say that Memory is being a bit humble in failing to mention dessert. All of Giuseppe’s desserts are handmade by Memory, the warm, triple chocolate bread pudding being a signature offering. Often times, guests will come in and eat a light dinner just to leave room for this decadent chocolaty concoction.
“I made it for Christmas dinner the year before we opened the restaurant”, Memory says of the bread pudding, “we knew we were opening the restaurant, and that was when we decided I would be baking all the desserts. Coming from an art background, it really enables me to be creative with the dessert specials each week, ranging from strawberry shortcake and raspberry cheesecake, and coconut cake, which is a favorite.”
Also unique to Giuseppe’s offerings are their gluten free options, including gluten-free pizza, rice pasta and other dishes that accommodate various dietary restrictions. Using rice flours, and grilled meats and ﬁsh, instead of the standard ﬂour or breadcrumbs, the kitchen is able to cater to diners with gluten-free diets. Joe Thomas says that Giuseppe’s actually hears the most from guests who come in for the gluten-free menu, “so often we have a guest say ‘I’ve really missed pizza!’”
This wekend, the musical pizza and piano pioneers, Joe and Memory, will finally make their story official, with plans to get married right in the middle of their own restaurant. Memory describes it as a “total do it yourself wedding…” with music provided by Joe’s long time Dueling Pianos partner, Ricky Lauria and food prepared onsite in the restaurant’s own kitchen. When asked about what will be on the menu, Memory says “I keep changing my mind… when the world is your oyster in a restaurant kitchen… it’s hard to decide”. In the words of the Giuseppe’s menu, there are endless “Pasta-bilities”.
Naturally, Joe and Memory will tie the knot right next to the grand piano, and will become a truly dynamic duo. Their continued partnership in romance, in music and in business, is part of why Giuseppe’s has been so successful in its first few years. But the formula would not be complete without all the loyal customers that Joe and Memory have won the hearts of, like Bill and Lucille Shephard. Wild Bill, as he is fondly referred to, said, “We love going to Giuseppe’s. I’ve been with Joe for about 10 to 15 years. He is the first piano player that I can sing with. I met them at the Studio and I happened to be there the night they met and I think they were made for each other. I will soon be 80 years old and I would like to continue going to Giuseppe’s for the rest of my life.”
When asked about the biggest factor in the 3 years of nonstop growth at Giuseppe’s Ristorante, Memory immediately says, “The loyalty of our customers. One of the greatest privileges of owning and running a restaurant is getting to know your customers. We feel truly blessed to have met and made friends with so many of our regulars. The sense of community that we feel makes all the hard work well worth it.” Giuseppe’s is truly the kind of restaurant where, if you become a regular, you become part of the family.