ROSELLE PARK, NJ — The aroma of fresh garlic, simmering marinara sauce and melting cheese wafts through the air inside Joe’s Rotisseria on Westfield Avenue as the afternoon lunch crowd lines up at the counter.
One customer is picking up two plain pies; another asks for an order of garlic knots, and the couple behind them can’t decide what toppings they want on their Triple Threat, a house specialty that’s part pizza, part calzone, part garlic knots and total decadence.
The line grows, the customers grow hungrier and the orders mount, but Joe Brignoni can take the heat.
“Chef Joe,” as is embroidered on his black, flour-stained chef’s coat, has never been one to shy away from daunting challenges. After all, he was just 21 years old when he withdrew $32,000 in cash from his savings account, put it in a bag and plunked it down on a pizza shop he had seen on Craigslist in a town that already had several pizza joints.
In four years, Brignoni has built his restaurant into a destination for people from around Union County, and even from other states, who come to try his exotic pizza creations made with toppings such as shrimp scampi, taco, grilled mac and cheese and more.
Brignoni will be calling on his youthful enthusiasm and culinary creativity to compete against hundreds of chefs from around the globe at the World Pizza Games starting on March 4 at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Nevada.
He is entered in the nontraditional category, and the winner of each of the five categories — traditional, nontraditional, pan, pizza Napoletana and Roman — will compete to take home a $5,000 prize and bragging rights.
“I entered because I feel I can win the nontraditional category,” Brignoni said. “My goal is to place in the top 20 in the world. With the amount of pies we can make — we have 600 pies we can make right now — I think we have a lot of ammo going into the competition. I think it’s going to be, I wouldn’t say effortless. It’s going to be fun more than challenging. It’s like going into work for us. We’re going into this contest like we’re having fun.”
Brignoni said times were tough after he bought the place. He was losing hundreds of dollars each month. Then, a popular food blogger came in, loved the food and posted a picture of the pizza. Overnight, Brignoni’s social media following swelled by 1,000. Then another foodie did the same and his social media following increased again.
Then everything, as Brignoni put it, “just exploded” when his food was featured by Thrillist.com and the Food Network. Suddenly people were coming from hundreds of miles around.
Bill Thompson, a PSE&G employee who’s on the road all day, makes it a point to stop in Joe’s Rotisseria four or five times a week.
He said a mother and a daughter once drove all the way from Scranton, Pa., to buy three pizzas. And another time, someone came from Connecticut. It’s becoming almost common for people flying into Newark to take an Uber to the restaurant for pizza, then take an Uber back to the airport.
Thompson said the food great and the casual atmosphere keeps him coming back.
“Joe says ‘hello’ to everyone who comes in, tells everyone to have a great day on their way out,” Thompson said. “While you’re standing there with your pizza, he’ll ask you about yourself: what you do, why you stopped in. To me, that has always been a highlight, sitting there listening to people talk to him.”
Brignoni, who typically puts in 10- or 12-hour days, has been a hard worker his whole life.
Before becoming a wrestling and baseball star at Union High School, he was out cutting lawns, shoveling snow and socking away every penny.
After high school, he studied at Disney’s culinary program in Florida, learning from celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian, a staple at the Epcot International Food Festival. When he graduated, Brignoni said he could have followed the route many of his classmates did, taking a well-paid job with a nationally known steakhouse.
However, Brignoni craved creative freedom.
“I see some of my colleagues who are actually executive chefs in the city; they hate their lives,” he said. “They can’t make what they want to make. If they wanted to wrap a filet mignon and did it with a chocolate sauce, the owner of that steakhouse might not want to do that because in their mind that’s gross. In the chef’s mind, that’s trying to be creative, they’re trying to bring a palate that you’ve never had in your life. And that’s what I’m all about.”
One of the turning points in Brignoni’s life came about seven years ago. He said he, along with a few friends, was arrested for possession of marijuana. At the time, he was pursuing a career in law enforcement. He said he eventually cleared his record and got his act together, turning his focus to the culinary arts.
After a night in the casinos at Atlantic City, he was looking for a place to stay on Craigslist when he came across the restaurant.
“I was looking at it, thinking, ‘I can work for some guy and make $80,000. That’s not going to cut it. I need money,’” Brignoni said. “I wanted to make 100K when I was 21 years old and there are not that many 21-year-olds who make 100K, and we’re talking all cash. This is a cash business. When I had that vision, it was like, ‘I can work for somebody for the rest of my life, collect a pension, collect this, collect that. Or, I can be a cop for the rest of my life for 35K a year and get bullets shot at me, or I can make 35K in three weeks and have it all be cash and it’s legal, and I get to see my family at night and go to sleep.”
At 21, he bought the restaurant and set out to take on the world, one stuffed-crust pizza at a time.
Flash forward to today, when he’s gearing up to take on some of the best chefs in the world in Las Vegas. He has never been afraid of a challenge.
“We have a lot of sponsorship so all of our materials will be there already,” Brignoni said. We don’t have to ship our materials. I already put in the exact amount of materials I’ll need for each pie. I have companies that are supplying them to me for free because they want to use me as a marketing advertisement for their company So, if I win, I’m supposed to say, ‘Hey, I’m using my sauce here, my cheese here. I get my flour from here.’
“So, if I win, it’s going to be exciting to represent big-brand, Fortune 500 companies and to have a small business represent them and say, ‘Hey, we won best pizza-maker in the world and this is how we did it. We didn’t represent ourselves.’”