SPRING LAKE — Three weeks ago, "Papa Joe" Giarratana stood in the parking lot of his smoldering restaurant and vowed to rebuild.
The shock has worn off since the frigid morning of Jan. 24, when an electrical fire ravaged the landmark business that Giarratana and his wife, Donna, built from the ground up. Their resolve has not.
"After 33 years of legacy, how can we just let it go up in smoke?" said Joe, 63.
For now, the shell of Papa Joe's Italian Restaurant remains surrounded by a chain-link fence, but the Giarratanas and their former employees are showing signs of rising from the ashes.
The couple said the Killingsworth Agency has been responsive and that Nationwide Insurance really does seem to be on their side, though the first check has yet to arrive. Once the money comes and the bulldozers do their work, the Giarratanas envision a new building on the existing slab.
The couple and a half-dozen employees are maintaining their catering operation by leasing the kitchen of a shuttered restaurant at the Quality Inn near Interstate 75. The Giarratanas ran the eatery, then called Max Grill, for a few years in the middle of the last decade.
Since the fire, they have used the kitchen to cook up lasagna, tortellini and eggplant Parmesan for a wedding and rehearsal dinner.
"It was good to have Joe cooking again," said general manager Jeannie Cameron, who started as a prep cook and dishwasher 33 years ago.
The Giarratanas might also use the site for eat-in dining until the new building is ready. That would help employees who haven't found jobs and serve as a tangible sign of the pending rebirth of Papa Joe's, said Donna, 55.
"We want to keep the momentum going," she said. Otherwise, "people will get the idea there's no more Papa Joe's."
Capricci's, the couple's gift shop next door to the restaurant, is still open for business.
The restaurant was still smoldering when offers to help the couple's now-unemployed staff of 45 began to pour in from across the county. The Giarratanas had earned a reputation for philanthropy over the past three decades, and people took the opportunity to be there for them in their time of need.
Donna, who has lost her father to illness since the fire, chokes back tears when she talks about what she calls the "agape love."
"It's kept us floating," she said.
A yard sale of donated items held at the restaurant the weekend after the fire netted about $15,000, much of that from donors who came by to drop off checks. Former Papa Joe's employees who helped with the sale one or both days left with as much as $450 in cash.
Live Oak Theatre and the Kiwanis Club of Brooksville Ridge, with major support from LRE Ground Services, collaborated to produce 1,000 "I ♥ Papa Joe's" T-shirts, with net proceeds going to the employees. At $15 for one and two for $20, the shirts sold out, and a second batch is now for sale.
Brooksville Pastor David Hope started working the day of the fire to set up a relief fund for the employees. On Friday, Hope got word that the paperwork was finally finished and an account can be opened for several thousand dollars already raised or donated.
The account's board of trustees will sit down soon to come up with a fair way to disburse the money, Hope said. "We don't want to let any grass grow under our feet," he said. "We want to get this done yesterday."
About 20 of the 45 employees have already found other jobs. Four are now at Applebee's in Brooksville and a couple are at the Cracker Barrel in Ridge Manor West.
Many of the workers had been with the Giarratanas for years, some for more than two decades. The fire ended a 26-year run for Susie Durst, 55, of Brooksville.
Durst said she's hoping the relief fund gets distributed soon. Her husband lays tile, and work has been slow.
Last week, Durst started training for her new job as a server at Sonny's BBQ in Bushnell. She's thankful, but working for a chain is not the same as what Durst calls her Papa Joe's family.
"Joe kept saying we were spoiled, and we said, Yeah, right,' " she said, laughing. "But no, we were spoiled."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.