As he sat on a black metal desk outside of the restaurant he opened in Little Italy nine years ago, Joseph Gardella’s eyes were swollen, his face red.
Hours earlier, he had announced that he was closing Joe Benny’s for good.
Inside the eatery, he left a message in chalk to customers on a blackboard containing the specials. “Don’t talk about it! Please and thanks!”
But he did talk about it. Opening the restaurant had been a dream for the first generation Sicilian American who grew up cooking with his grandmother and mother. When the time came, he didn’t consider anyplace but Little Italy, a neighborhood he calls his “second home.” If he ever opens another restaurant, he says, it will be here.
And Gardella was there daily, arriving at Joe Benny’s as early as 4 a.m. to make the dough and the sauce for the restaurant’s fare, returning later at 4 p.m. in time to open.
The place became known for its meatballs — cheekily dubbed “the best balls on the block” — and its Sicilian-style focaccia pizza, often named for customers, who usually began to line up for the 5 p.m. opening.
“The customer can look at a menu and say, ‘This is my pie,’” he told The Baltimore Banner during an interview last month. “About a year ago, I tried taking a pie off of the menu. And that customer that created it came in, and sure enough, ‘Where’s my pie?’ so I put it back and I said from that moment on, we’re just gonna keep it going. And if [the menu’s] a phone book, it’s a phone book.”
The intimacy of the place — and Gardella’s big, brash and warm persona — helped endear it to fans, including Banner readers, who just weeks ago voted it the top pizza spot in the city. The restaurant was on the track for 2023 to be his busiest year, he said.
But behind the scenes, the owner has been struggling.
“I’m a wreck, y’all,” he said in a video posted Thursday to Instagram, announcing the closure. “I can’t push anymore. I’m tired. I’m fat. I’m crazy. I’m stressed. And it’s not fair to you guys, it’s not fair to my staff.”
The decision to close, he told The Banner, was six months in the making. Fourteen-hour workdays had taken a toll on his health — some blood work for a physical came back irregular, his back aches. He doesn’t remember the last time he went to a wedding.
The restaurant’s last day will be sometime either at the end of May or very early in June, Gardella said in the video, before breaking down in tears.
As he cried, he offered appreciation to staff and to customers — with a jab: “All you cheap bastards, get your gift certificates in” before the restaurant shuts down.