On the Rocks was born out of a family history project that Maria felt had commercial appeal. The book’s subject, Joseph Costanzo, Jr., former owner and operator of The Primadonna Restaurant, is a well-known personality in the restaurant world. He was one of the most decorated restaurateurs in the United States, winning multiple awards both locally and nationally. He hosted a radio show called “Fine Dining in Pittsburgh and Around the World” and wrote a weekly newspaper column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about food and the local restaurant scene. At the height of his success, he ran for Commissioner of Allegheny County, a county encompassing the city of Pittsburgh and surrounding suburbs, with a population of 1.3 million people.
For seventeen years, Costanzo owned and operated The Primadonna Restaurant in McKees Rocks, PA. The Primadonna was frequently voted the best Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh, receiving glowing acclaim in local the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and City Paper as well as national publications like The New York Times, New York Daily News, and Playboy. Costanzo used his marketing genius to create his own bottled Italian salad dressing sold in stores and offered a Primadonna apparel line, essentially turning supporters into walking billboards. The restaurant’s recipes have been published in many cookbooks, including critically acclaimed food critic Mike Kalina’s Pittsburgh Cookbook. In 2001, The Primadonna became known across the nation as one of the premiere Italian restaurants, earning the prestigious DiRōNA Award. In 2005, after a targeted public investigation, Costanzo lost his restaurant and spent time in federal prison. His life and the lives of his family members have never been the same.
Maria worked on the manuscript for years and went as far as she could on her own before eliciting the help of her co-author Ruthie Robbins, who in addition to being her former A.P. English teacher at Montour High School in McKees Rocks, PA, was an avid reader, writer, and editor. Robbins is in her 48th year as an educator, now teaching in Buffalo, NY. She practices what she teaches and is currently working on a book about teaching titled This Is a Playroom; Words Are the Toys, a children’s book called Nuttered Boodles, and a fictional romance, Dreams I’ll Never See. More about Ruthie Robbins may be found on her website: www.ruthierobbins.com.
Maria and Ruthie paired for years, polishing the manuscript. They eventually found an outstanding literary agent, Leticia Gomez, who helped them acquire a book deal with Koehler Books.
The Primadonna Restaurant shut its doors twenty years ago, but the robust following suggests that memories of Joe and The Primadonna are long-lasting and continue to have an impact. Between locals and foodies from all over, it is estimated that during the time that Costanzo owned the restaurant, over a million people enjoyed one or more meals at The Primadonna.
The Original Cast of Primadonna Employees (in alphabetical order)
When we created the book, we tried our best to include as many authentic stories and characters, but through the editing process some events and characters were cut from our original version. If you and/or your loved one were left out, please know that this is not at all a reflection of you/your loved one, it was merely that we didn’t have enough space. We appreciate the work of all former Primadonna staff. Thank you to:
Betty and Ricky Blatz
Amber (DiCesare) Jackson
Jim “Hufty” Huffnagel
Paul “Sticks” Kirsch
Linda (Vasselo) Weaver