BROOKSVILLE — As if mourning at a funeral, "Papa" Joe Giarratana stood in the parking lot of his ruined restaurant Friday morning dressed in black. He peered through dark sunglasses as a backhoe knocked down charred walls.
Six hours earlier, Giarratana had turned the corner at State Road 50 and Spring Lake Highway to see his life's work engulfed in flames. By dawn, Papa Joe's Italian Restaurant was a shell surrounding black, soaking rubble.
The news of the 33-year-old landmark's fiery destruction spread quickly and hit hard. By midday, Giarratana and his wife Donna's hands were stained black, but they were already looking to the future.
"Be patient," said Joe, 63. "We'll reopen as soon as we can and be back swinging. We're not going anywhere."
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Joe Giarratana emigrated from Italy to New York with broken English and an assumption that the restaurant business was the best option to make his way.
He wound up in Brooksville because his in-laws lived there. He and Donna started in 1981 with a pizza parlor at the end of a tiny strip center about 6 miles east of town. Back then, the couple stood at the window wondering if anyone would realize they were there.
Customers came. The Giarratanas bought out their neighboring tenant and then expanded the restaurant, which included a deli. The crowd on busy weekend nights could reach 300. The couple launched a catering business and opened Capricci Gifts in an existing building next door.
Employees tended to stick around.
Server Lindsey Carollo, 34, started as a dishwasher 19 years ago.
"It felt like family, so I stayed," Carollo said.
Susie Durst of Brooksville, also a server, has worked at Papa Joe's for 26 of her 55 years.
"Joe and Donna are just wonderful people to work for," Durst said.
As Papa Joe's grew into one of the county's most successful independent restaurants, so did the Giarratanas' reputation as philanthropists. They frequently sponsor events and donate food.
"Their generosity is just unparalleled," said Mark Barry, executive director of the Arc Nature Coast. The nonprofit organization, which provides services to developmentally disabled people, has received thousands of dollars in cash donations and in-kind support from the Giarratanas over the years.
"You can tell it provides them with a lot of reward to be able to be generous," Barry said.
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Firefighters got the call to the restaurant about 3 a.m. Friday, and the first crews arrived within minutes. By then, though, flames were tearing through the one-story building. A stiff breeze fanned the blaze, said Hernando County Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Kevin Carroll.
"It just ran through the trusses," Carroll said.
The heat forced corks out of wine bottles, but the only casualties were the angelfish that swam in tanks in the dining room.
Carroll said investigators believe an electrical problem in the ceiling above the main dining area was the cause of the blaze.
There was little left to salvage.
General manager Jeannie Cameron, 48, started as a prep cook and dishwasher 33 years ago. She held her wedding reception at the restaurant.
"I felt sick to my stomach, then the tears came," said Cameron, who arrived about 5 a.m. "It's like losing your own home."
At least two county commissioners and a state senator were among dozens who came to offer condolences and support.
Gayle Burns, a Spring Lake resident, has been a regular customer for 25 years. The staff knows her order: chicken cognac and a glass of white zinfandel.
"Joe and Donna have the kindest hearts, and it hurts to see them go through this," Burns said, choking back tears.
The Giarratanas, who have insurance, worried about their 45 employees. Many live paycheck to paycheck or tip to tip.
"We'll get through this, but we need to get them going into something else," Donna said.
Within hours, other restaurants were offering jobs to those who needed them. The Giarratanas also hope to set up temporary shop somewhere to keep their catering business going.
"God closes one door and he opens a hundred," Joe Giarratana said. "Buildings come and go, but we only go round once. With this, we get a second chance."
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.