When I was in college I worked in Gino’s pizzeria located in Long Beach New York for a couple of years. My time was short but I loved smelling the rich aroma of fresh cooked Italian meals and the variety of pies that were always on display. Things were different then and the original owner, Gino himself was always there to watch over the staff to make sure everything was in order. He was a good looking man even in his 70’s at the time. I still remember his dapper style of blazers and gold necklaces that he wore with pride. His hair was bright white but always slicked back, when he walked into a room it really did light up, people loved him. All you would hear was his name, like a celebrity who walked in on a small town gathering. To be around him was not only an honor but a very good life lesson, his strong Italian accent added to his even stronger persona. My time working as at a restaurant taught me more than I realized. A lot of what I learned, I implemented in my own business years later.
I remember working there and admiring Carol, Gino’s daughter. I watched her from afar as she came in with so much pride and ran the place with her eyes closed. This woman was not only my first mentor in the business world but I studied her and how she interacted with a variety of personalities daily, including the staff. The one trait I admired the most was her ability to not act like the owner, but a worker. She worked alongside the staff not above, and whether you came in wearing a suit or jeans, or no shirt at all like most of the surfers would…she treated everyone the same.
Carol Nicotra has been working in her father’s pizzerias since she was a young girl. As I sat down with her she looked even more radiant than she did when I was working there, many moons ago. She was not only her father’s right hand when he was alive, but she carried on his tradition and kept an old world restaurant running in the age of “cheap eats” and “Gourmet Fast Food”. Gino’s has stood the challenge of time; it is the same place with the same great food. When you go to Long Beach you go to Gino’s!
Going to Gino’s nearly a decade after I left was very overwhelming, so much had changed. The famous red leather booths that once took up the dining room were gone and replaced with fine brown leather seating. There were new paintings and décor everywhere, something Julie the youngest granddaughter and now co-owner of Gino’s takes credit for. Her style is very Manhattan chic and it shows through her beautiful elegant touch of glam she brings to the family business. The one thing that stood out was the staff, some I had worked with nearly a decade ago, but there were a lot of new faces. The pizza servers all wore clean white jackets and clean shirts, not a drop of sauce on the aprons. Back in the day the more sauce you had on your apron was a sign you were doing your job! Now this mom and pop old world restaurant felt different. It felt more “upscale” but the charm was still there. It wasn’t unrecognizable, like most restaurants get when they try the “millennial makeover” they end up losing their touch, and fading away slowly but surely.
With so many brick and mortar businesses closing today, it is not easy to stay in business and move with the times but keep the “feel” the same. Business owners are now dealing with higher prices on food, various new food allergies, the latest health craze, and most importantly the millennial audience that is taking over the economy. So how did Gino’s make it through the changing times? I sat down with Carol and had a discussion over some delicious Italian food.
Tell us about your father, and what was it like working in Gino’s your entire life?
Carol: When my father passed away it was very hard, I was very close to him. I worked in Gino’s my entire life since I was a child, this is all I knew. When I met my husband Fred he worked in the ice cream side and I worked on the Pizza side. Gino’s was very different then, my father came from Italy and worked so many jobs and his passion was making great Italian food. Everyone in Long Beach knew my father, he was a great man. He always helped anyone he could, we never turn anyone away. When super storm Sandy happened we fed all of Long Beach on the house. People love Gino’s because we are a part of a community. We are not just another restaurant, here people feel like family.
How is it working in Gino’s after your dad’s passing. He was such a big part of this place. Did you ever think to sell or walk away?
Carol: No. This is the heart and soul of me and many others, today my son Paul, and two daughters Danielle and Julie are all co-owners. My husband Fred is the backbone. This was my father’s dream and I am happy it stayed in the family, and that all three of my children run it with pride like my father and I did. This is a real family restaurant, and the customers know that. When were closed I get phone calls asking why were closed? A lot of our anchor customers have been coming in here for years for lunch or dinner daily, or both. This restaurant is the heart of Long Beach, and I am so happy to have been here with my father and now with my family.
How is it working with family?
Carol: I am not here as much as I use to be, I gave myself a break. With the kids running the restaurant it couldn’t be in better hands. My son Paul is very accomplished and owns La Piazza restaurant in Merrick, and he is also the owner of Lena’s Italian Kitchen on the Upper East Side & Murray Hill. So he has the experience and has really brought the place to light since my dad’s passing. He is great with the staff and really has run the place so well. My husband Fred is a big part of Gino’s he’s been there since the beginning with me. Danielle and Julie are also great with our customers. They both oversee everything from A-Z. They’ve grown up in the restaurant world, like I did so they know the ins and outs and how to take care of things in a professional manner.
What is the one golden rule of running a successful restaurant?
Carol: Don’t be fake and don’t be in it for the money. People know when you’re in it to make money or you genuinely want to be there. We have some customers that have been coming in for over a decade, or more. They come to us they won’t go anywhere else. We built this restaurant on a lot of love, dedication, and delicious dishes. We don’t use generic ingredients; everything is fresh and prepared on the spot. Customers can taste the difference in our food and others.
You were brought up in the restaurant world; you didn’t go into it yourself. Do you have any regrets?
Carol: My father’s passion for this restaurant is my passion. We have sat here so many times and laughed and just had a great time. We didn’t come in to work and wish we weren’t there. It’s a great thing to be able to walk into a place and it’s your own. My husband is very supportive and has always stood by me and he understands being a business man himself, that this life can be very consuming. I am glad I have him because it’s important to have a supportive spouse who gets it. I used to be here every day from morning to close, just recently I decided to let my hair down and accomplish my own goals. I wrote and published a children’s book called “Old Man Max’s Cabbage Patch”, I also went back to school! I have never regretted being at Gino’s and working here and building it with my father, he was a tough man to work for but he was the best. I am so happy to still be here with my family.
How has the economy affected your business? Wage increases, food prices surging?
Carol: The staff that works for us is very dedicated so we pay very fair. We match the minimum wage, and always make sure that our staff is taken care of. The people that work for us and with us want to be here; they come in and serve with smiles. Food prices always go up and down that is something that has been happening since the beginning. We never let that affect our prices, we are reasonable priced and affordable no main dish is over $30.00, you can have a great 3 course meal in under $50 per person and have enough to take home.
How do you feel about so many pizzerias opening up on Long Island?
Carol: Competition is always there but we have been here for so long people know us and want to come here. The train station is across the street so we get that crowd as well heading to the beach. We are a seasonal business, and we have seen many restaurants come and go. It’s not easy to stay in business nowadays.
Where do you see Gino’s restaurant in the next 10 years?
Carol: I see Gino’s still standing here and serving up the best pizza in town. We are packed daily, the winter is slow but the summer and spring months make up for it. I don’t think Gino’s will ever lose its charm that my father brought to it, and now my family.
What advice can you give to new restaurant owners just starting out?
Carol: It is very tough nowadays, you either stay really small or become really big is the only way to go. A new owner has to put in the time and give the place attention and use quality ingredients. Customers know when they want to keep going back, sometimes the saying “the customer is always right” applies but you have to use your own discretion as well. Patience is key.
I would like to thank Carol for her sitting down with me and talking about her wonderful accomplishments and family. Being a business woman myself, I know how hard it can be to face competition and stay afloat. The business world is harder than ever, nowadays you have to be all over social media and keep up with the latest health and diet trends. Accommodating everyone can be very hard but your true customers will always stay with you and grow along the way. I learned so much from my old boss, mentor, and friend. Carol Nicotra is a woman that truly has it all, and isn’t afraid of new challenges because she mastered the old ones growing up in the ever changing restaurant world. Learning from the bottom to the top, she is truly a pioneer in her field.
Next time you’re in Long Beach, Visit Gino’s pizzeria and enjoy a slice of heaven!
Visit Gino’s restaurant online: https://www.ginoslongbeach.com/
Instagram : @LenasItaliankitchen