Joe Picarelli, who immigrated to the United States from Italy without knowing any English and became one of the most popular restaurateurs in Long Beach, died Sunday, March 22, his brother, Frank Picarelli, said. He was 65.
Picarelli died of a heart attack, his brother said. He had struggled with heart disease, and had previously required surgery, with six stents.
“He was struggling with his breathing these last two weeks,” Frank Picarelli said. “His restaurant was his life and when he had to close it because of the coronavirus crisis and lay off 24 employees, it put another level of stress on him.”
Condolences poured in from around the city when news circulated of Picarelli’s death.
Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price said Picarelli would be greatly missed “but never forgotten.”
“Picarelli’s Restaurant has been a staple in our neighborhood for many years,” she said. “We are so thankful to him for his impact, influence and his love of community.”
Picarelli’s, 6204 E. Pacific Coast Highway, was “my very favorite restaurant just around the corner from our house,” said Randy Gordon, president and CEO of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “My wife, Nancy, and I walked over there to eat over 100 times. My favorite dish was his pork chops. Best I ever had. Nancy loved their salmon dish. We will miss him.”
Naomi Rainey-Pierson, president of the Long Beach chapter of the NAACP, said on FaceBook that Picarelli was “the most compassionate, generous, brilliant businessman and an amazing friend.”
She said she saw him two nights before he died.
“We weren’t able to hug, and we kept our distance,” she wrote, referring to social distancing requirements amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. “I wished I had hugged you anyway. No one can fill your void.”
Joe Picarelli was born on March 11, 1955, the second oldest of four boys, in Roggiano-Graviana, a small town of 5,000 in Calabria, a state in southern Italy. His parents, Mario and Maria Picarelli, were farmers. But the family immigrated to the United States in 1966 after financial difficulties swept through Italy. The family ultimately settled in Downey.
“Nobody in our family spoke English, but we got along and learned English from a neighbor,” Frank Picarelli said.
The boys — Angelo, Joe, Frank and Dominic — all graduated from Pius X High School in Downey. Joe Picarelli was the only brother who didn’t go to college, deciding instead to make a career in the restaurant business. When he was 15 years old, Picarelli had a variety of jobs at Sal’s Italian Market in Downey.
The family started the restaurant business when Picarelli’s parents bought a deli, Cirivello’s, 3819 Anaheim St., in Long Beach, in 1974. The business expanded; at one time, the Picarellis operated six Cirivello’s, the largest ones being on Anaheim and 4115 N. Viking Way, near Long Beach City College, where the restaurant was a favorite hangout for youth sports teams, friends and families.
Joe became very close to Los Angeles Rams football players who practiced on Blair Field, at Cal State Long Beach, which was 2 miles from the restaurant on Anaheim, his brother said.
“Players like Isiah Robertson, Tom Mack, Joe Scibelli and Merlin Olson would come in all the time,” Frank Picarelli said. “I remember Olson’s hands being so big that when he held my mother’s hands, her hands just disappeared.”
Eventually, Joe Picarelli wanted to operate a restaurant with his own identity. He opened the original Picarelli’s on Anaheim Street around 2000. In 2004, he moved to 5096 E. Pacific Coast Highway. But he thought it did not have enough seating and parking, so in 2013, he opened his current restaurant, at a site that used to be Passaparola Trattoria Italiana. The Crooked Duck is at the previous location.
Joe Picarelli was a great cook and created his own twists to his Italian menu, according to his brothers.
“One of his favorite dishes was a tomato salad with garlic, olive oil and basil,” Angelo Picarelli said. “He was proudest of his meat sauces.”
Frank Picarelli said his brother made a great checca pasta with chicken or shrimp. And, of course, there was the diner’s favorite pork chop.
It’s unclear what will become of Joe Picarelli’s restaurant; he was never married and had no children to leave it to.
Frank Picarelli said his brother also liked to do philanthropic catering for nonprofits like Pathways to Independence.
“He had what I call the ‘it factor,’” Frank Picarelli said. “He had whatever it took to develop great relationships with everyone. He could have run for office and got elected. He had great leadership qualities.”
Frank Picarelli said Joe Picarelli had another nickname, “The Fixer,” because people would come to him to fix problems and he would always help them out.
Joe Picarelli’s major way to relax was on “Saluti Amici,” his 34-foot boat he kept in the Shoreline Marina.
“He loved going to Catalina Island,” Frank Picarelli said. “Boating was his antidote to stress. He was at peace on his boat. The rest of us got seasick, but he only got seasick on other people’s boats.”
Frank and Angelo Picarelli both said they were happy that the four brothers could all get together last year and visit the Italian town where they were born.
“It was the first we had been back there since 1966,” Frank Picarelli said. “We had a great time together. We surprised old relatives. It was kind of like a last hurrah.”
Joe Picarelli is survived by his brothers, Angelo, Frank and Dominic Picarelli, and their spouses; many nephews, nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces.
A private service will be held for the family. A celebration of life will be held later. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations in Joe Picarelli’s name to Father Al Scott’s Outreach Inc. by clicking on fatheral.org.