John “Giovanni” Palmaro sailed his boat, “Allegro II,” from Lindenhurst to Ocean Beach back in 1971, and never looked back. At least that’s how the story is told about how Gio (and a few other treasured rogues) found home. Allegro translated from the Italian means upbeat, cheerful, and that was definitely Gio’s style.
Gio not only found sanctuary on Fire Island, but he also established two thriving business, an Italian restaurant called Giovanni’s and a small, not-often-quiet bar catering to the locals called CJ’s, after Gio’s son, Christopher John. Giovanni’s remained in business for about 10 years before Gio sold it to focus his attention on CJ’s.
This year is CJ’s 50th birthday!
What broke CJ’s out of the pack of ordinary yearly restaurants was that Gio decided to open his place year round! There had never been a restaurant that remained open in the winter. CJ’s was the first and only for nearly 50 years. It became something of a bodega after Columbus Day, supplying milk and bread and cans of soups for the few remaining locals. This only added to the restaurant’s enduring appeal. CJ’s became the Cheers of Fire Island.
Gio had been the produce manager at Hills Brother’s supermarket chain, and the freshness of items on his menu only added to the success of the restaurant. Nothing out of a bottle here – they made all their own sauces.
Gio loved to fish and would add the catch of the day to the menu as an evening special. Fried calamari was a regular addition. But it was not just the quality of the food for which CJ’s became famous, it was also the creativity of the bar.
Various claimants take credit for the invention of a drink called Rocket Fuel, which has become the drink of choice not just in Ocean Beach, but throughout Fire Island. There are many copies but
CJ’s remains an original founder and among the best by maintaining its original recipe. Into a blender goes ice, a healthy dose of Bacardi 151 rum, Cocoa Lopez (cream of coconut) and pineapple juice for a fusion of flavors. Float a shot of amaretto on top and insert a cherry. Voila, Rocket Fuel!
CJ’s sold more Bacardi 151 rum than any other bar/restaurant in the country. It would have five blenders in constant use by blender tenders. The bar used 15 to 20 bottles of 151 rum a night.
Bacardi actually sent a team of representatives out to Fire Island, out to CJ’s, to present it with a plaque bestowing that honor. They were amazed that such an out-of-the-way place, in such a small space, with a busy season only 16 weeks long could possibly set the record.
To maintain the quality of their baby, CJ’s bought out the last of the stock of Bacardi’s 151 when the company stopped manufacturing it back in 2016. If you want a Nathan’s hot dog, you go to Coney Island. If you want Rocket Fuel, you go to CJ’s. A recent motto is, “I fueled around at CJ’s.”
Gio was famous for his shirt-off-his-back generosity. After his daily four-wheel drives off the beach for provisions it was not unusual for him to leave a “bouquet of broccoli” at friends’ doorsteps. When he planted a fig tree on his own property, he gave away clippings to everyone.
His Thanksgiving feasts – a turkey dinner, with all the trimmings, to one and all were legendary. The restaurant went through as much as 200 pounds of turkey on that day.
Gio was one of a kind, a proud Italian who loved the Godfather movies. He played the ponies and could often be found in the Off Track Betting parlor where he would meet locals who needed a ride out to the beach and would drive them there – gratis, of course. He was also an accomplished dancer with moves that had some ladies swooning. An unapologetic hipster, he sported his famous pork pie hat, accompanied everywhere with his faithful little mutt, Sergio, with whom he shared a beer each day. (Actually there were two Sergio’s over the years, both similar in looks, both beer drinkers – and the first sired the second.)
Gio was also a poet. One of his poems is displayed on a wall in the restaurant to this day. It reads:
“Where I come from nobody knows
Where I’m going, everybody goes
The wind blows, the sea flows and
Only God knows.”
One day, after a quite full life, Gio was informed he had cancer. He died shortly thereafter and was waked at the Lindenhurst Funeral Home on (of all days) Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27, 1997.
His grown son had made a life of his own and did not want the bar/restaurant that had been named after him. So Gio bequeathed it to his best friend, Joseph Theodore “JT” Prolo, a man who had worked with Gio for years and who shared Gio’s commitment to the community and to CJ’s traditions.
JT was generous, well liked, and witty, with a great sense of humor. He enlarged the place by knocking down a wall enabling the installation of a full horseshoe bar. Mostly he left everything else pretty much alone, maintaining the intimate atmosphere the regulars had come to expect. He did add a lobster/prime rib special to the menu that became almost as celebrated as Rocket Fuel. JT ran the place for 12 years.
Still a young man only in his fifties, JT died of pancreatic cancer on March 21, 2011, just as another new season was about to begin. An enormous contingent of Fire Islanders saw JT off at his funeral at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Bay Shore.
His mother, Lori Prolo, took over for her son and ran the place for two years, but it proved to be too much. She put the place up for sale and had a buyer ready to go to contract, but Superstorm Sandy struck causing billions in damage, and killing hundreds. The buyer walked. CJ’s was at the brink of closing forever.
Along came two saviors, Chris and Laura Mercogliano, who took over CJ’s, maintaining its carefully crafted atmosphere, keeping the lobster special, and, of course, Rocket Fuels still using the original recipe with Bacardi 151 rum. They continue the reputation for generosity for which CJ’s has been so famous, including those free Thanksgiving dinners.
Celebrating 50 years of CJ’s hospitality, hoping for 50 years more.
CJ’s Restaurant and Bar is owned by the same parent company as this publication.
Share this Article