LYNDHURST, N.J. -- No one knows if there was ever an actual "JoJo" at JoJo's Pizza in Lyndhurst, but if there were his real name would be Junior, who's now 67.
After running the Italian takeout for 41 years, Junior Oppido is handing the trade secrets over to a fellow pizza maker from Lyndhurst who grew up making pies across the river, in Belleville.
JoJo's Pizza has been in business since 1959, and before Oppido took over in 1976, it had seen frequent turnover. He was 26 years old, and owning a pizzeria or cafe of some kind was something he had always wanted to do.
"I always had this dream, and when I saw JoJo's and was able to get in for just a little down, like 16 to 17 thousand or something. It all came together," said Oppido. It was 1976.
"I overheard two people saying I was just another one coming through, and that made me more determined. Later those two became good customers."
His parents helped by cooking sauce and meatballs from their kitchen in Jersey City, and his girlfriend Cindy, who eventually become his wife, helped at the counter.
"The food was so popular we would run out and have to go back to my parent's house and get more," Oppido said. "We'd call her up and say 'Ma, we're out of meatballs again.' Eventually, they just started working with us at JoJo's."
He said that was the best thing about being in the pizza business -- being around family all the time. His daughters and son worked in the business, as did his nephew and uncle.
It's been a fabulous run. Not many people get to do what I've done, get to spend all their time with their mother, father, children, cousins. I've seen generations come through here, as employees and as customers.
Employees from the decades streamed through the doors of JoJo's last Friday through Sunday, to bid Junior farewell.
"When you're in a town 40 years, you see people grow up and old. The kids that worked for me, so many of them came to see me last weekend. These kids I had at 16, 17, all in a circle telling me they're business people, doctors, parents … that was a beautiful thing," he said of his send-off.
Daneen Gratson, 50, of North Arlington, worked at JoJo's for 23 years, starting when she was 16.
"Junior's been a constant in so many lives," she said. "Employees ate there for free and everyone went home with a pizza."
She said JoJo's was like family, but it was also where she learned her work ethic.
"It was hard work," Gratson said. "There was no air conditioning, so the summers were excruciating. There's flour all over the floor and the ovens are going. She added that it was the heat that drove her to leave when she was 39, sticking with administrative work.
"On a Friday night, there would be 15 delivery guys and 15 people behind the counters, carrying 25-30 pizza boxes, pizzas slinging, six ovens cooking, six pies coming out. It becomes a quite a skill set," she said.
"There'd be five lines lit up on the phones. You'd finish one call and just go to the next. You just took order after order for over four hours. I have the burns to prove it. You cut a pie right out of the oven and sauce and cheese splashes back."
Jennie Kerner, 52, of Lyndhurst, starting working for Junior when she was 16 and stayed until she finished college at 22 -- and she said he taught her the business chops that got her started in marketing.
"He was the type of boss who let you get involved with everything. He was very old school. You had to get the right products and make sure the customer was happy," she said.
Kerner said a bunch of former employees are getting together to take him out after the New Year. "It will probably be the only time someone will pay for his meal," she said. "He's one of the most kindest and generous people I know. He treated all of us like family and his customers too."
She said the pizzeria was always the kind of place that's been embedded in the community, sponsoring sports teams and making donations.
New owner Mike Perri took over on Monday, and he'll have Junior by his side to transition him into the community. Not that he's a stranger to Lyndhurst or pizza -- he grew up in both.
Born and raised in Lyndhurst, his parents ran Gino's Pizza in Belleville, where he learned earned his Italian cooking stripes. His brother is now running that shop, and he branched out on his own with JoJo's.
"I'm keeping everything the same," Perri said. "I just want to keep it going and build on it. I want to keep the name going and give the people a good place to continue to come. This is my new home."
He said his wife, two children and step-daughter will all be part of the business, as well.
JoJo's is at 726 Ridge Rd. Call 201-933-0360 to order, or see its website for more info.
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