Joe Giarratana had his stove fired up long before sunup Tuesday in preparation for what without a doubt would be his busiest day of the year. By the restaurant's 11 a.m. opening, about 150 gallons of tomato sauce and 500 pounds of pasta stood ready to serve to the 1,100 customers expected to drop by over the next 10 hours.
"It's one of the happiest things I get to do each year," said Giarratana. "We've been doing it so long that we're seeing the kids of the kids we used to see here all the time."
Throughout the day, a steady stream of patrons dropped by the annual Papa Joe's Spaghetti Fest for a helping or two of the 99-cent all-you-can-eat spaghetti special or just to visit.
For Giarratana and his wife, Donna, the annual birthday celebration serves as a heartfelt gift to the community that has kept on giving for the past 30 years. It's a day where they get to play host and hostess by offering a day of family fun to anyone who wants to join in.
"We know how fortunate we are," said Giarratana, 61, who along with his wife started the family-style restaurant 30 years ago. "We're reminded of that every day we walk through the door. People have been good to us."
That's the way it has always been for the couple. When they launched their business in 1981 in a former sandwich shop 6 miles east of Brooksville in a remote shopping plaza off Spring Lake Highway, they knew they would have to tough it out for a while.
"We would stand at the window and wonder if anyone would even notice we were here," Giarratana recalled.
In time, customers did notice, and Papa Joe's, with its from-scratch Italian cuisine and friendly staff, became one of Hernando County's most successful independent restaurants.
The Giarratanas have always eagerly shared the fruits of their success through philanthropic endeavors aimed at helping to raise money for charitable organizations.
Tuesday's Spaghetti Fest was the culmination of a weekend celebration that included a showcase of local bands and raffles, all of which benefited the Arc Nature Coast, a nonprofit organization that provides services to individuals with developmental disabilities.
"I've always felt that something like this helps bring the community together," said Donna Giarratana. "It's a fun time that also has a good purpose. I think people believe in those kinds of things."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.