Those who remember Violetta’s would recall it as one of the more popular hangout spots in Merrick in the 1970s. It had an old-fashioned jukebox, a sought-after salad recipe and an owner who would sing and hum Italian songs behind the counter, putting on a show as he tossed pizza dough into the air.
This entertaining act earned Giuseppe Levanti the nickname “Uncle Joe” among customers and employees alike. His passion for food, cooking and feeding others created a familial feeling within the restaurant, which was in business for 40 years.
Levanti, a longtime Merrick resident, died suddenly on Jan. 24 at the age of 76. He was the youngest son of Maria and Francesco Levanti, who raised their five children — Filippo, Paolo, Salvatore, Giuseppe and Concetta — in the town of Palazzolo Acreide on the Italian island of Sicily.
In May 1963, just before his 19th birthday, Levanti moved to the U.S. to join his brothers who were working at pizza restaurants in the outer boroughs. Two years later, he met his wife, Sebastiana “Nella” Valenti, in Queens. She had come to America from another town in Sicily, Catania, which is just 45 minutes away from Palazzolo Acreide.
Levanti proposed to Nella three months after they met, and they married a year later on Feb. 13, 1966. This year would’ve marked the couple’s 55th wedding anniversary.
One year after Giuseppe and Nella’s first daughter, Mary, was born, the brothers opened Violetta’s in the Holiday Park Shopping Center on Merrick Road in 1968. After the birth of their second daughter, Fran (now Ciniglio), in 1971, the couple purchased their first home on Central Boulevard in Merrick, which was within walking distance of the restaurant.
“My dad was the kind of guy that if you didn't have money for a slice of pizza, he would give it to you for free,” Ciniglio said. “Everyone who walked into the restaurant and started working there became family.”
“People loved to hear him sing to himself when he was making the pizza,” Mary added. “He was passionate to make people happy, and he succeeded in that.”
In 1988, the family moved Violetta’s into a bigger space on Sunrise Highway, where it remained until 2008. After selling the restaurant, Levanti was able to spend more time with his one and only grandson, Joseph Ciniglio, who was born in 2005.
“He used to make pizza with Joseph when he was 3 . . . and threw a birthday party for him every year,” Ciniglio said. “He’d throw the radio on in his car and start the tarantella in the driveway.”
Ciniglio’s husband, Pat, regarded Levanti as a second father. “I’ve known the family for over 30 years, and I’ve never seen [another] man so happy and joyous,” he said. “The man had a heart of gold.”
Levanti is pre-deceased by his parents and his brother, Filippo. He is survived by his siblings, Paolo, Salvatore and Concetta; his wife, Nella; his daughters, Mary and Fran; his son-in-law, Pat; his grandson, Joseph; as well as cousins, nieces and nephews.