Love, Laughter and Lasagna: At the Table with Nancy Colella

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[This is the final installment in a four-part series “Matriarchs of Main & Elm,” published in December 2015 and profiling the women behind New Canaan’s great business families.]

Annunziata Colella—known to locals by her Americanized name, “Nancy”—on Tuesday afternoon sat at her long family dinner table in the kitchen of this brick exterior ranch-style house on Main Street, the family’s home since she moved in with a young daughter and husband in 1974.

Nancy Colella at home on a recent day. Contributed

Nancy Colella at home on a recent day. Contributed

She rested her hands atop a poinsettia tablecloth set with fresh yellow lilies, the doorway connecting to the living room beyond adorned with garlands draped around columns, potted poinsettias on side and coffee tables, tall candleholders in the form of angels placed on the floor, and large framed family photos on a fireplace mantle, beside Christmas cards and stockings.

Complimented on her holiday décor, Nancy shook her head and said in the Neapolitan accent that she’s had since she arrived in the United States—and started learning English—in 1971: “Oh, thank you, but this is nothing. I’ve hardly done anything.”

On the contrary.

Resilient, warm, intelligent and resourceful, Nancy Colella—wife of Giuseppe “Joe” Colella, founder of Joe’s Pizza—for nearly a half-century has conducted herself at home and at work with a sense of pride, responsibility and commitment that’s transformed a mom-and-pop pizza shop into a cherished New Canaan fixture.

L-R: Mena, Lorenzo, Nancy and Serra Collela on Main Street with their mom, Nancy Collela, in the early 1980s. Contributed

L-R: Mena, Lorenzo, Nancy and Serra Collela on Main Street with their mom, Nancy Collela, in the early 1980s. Contributed

She has instilled her work ethic and family values in her own four kids—Nancy, Filomena (Mena), Lorenzo, and Serra—and, by extension, future generations of Colellas.

Standing in the kitchen by her mom, wrapping a dozen plates of homemade confections she’d created for her own daughter Carolyn’s teachers, Mena reflected on the ways that the Colella family matriarch has led by example in her energy and attitude.

Nancy Colella, pregnant at left, in Joe's Pizza on Forest Street. Lorenzo on the chair in the foreground. Contributed

Nancy Colella, pregnant at left, in Joe’s Pizza on Forest Street. Lorenzo on the chair in the foreground. Contributed

Nancy recently has been unwell, and that’s afforded Mena and her siblings an opportunity to show that their mother’s important lessons on family have taken hold, and how much she means to them.

“She took such great care of us when we were children, all that sacrifice, and now it’s our turn to help and to take care of her. She deserves it,” Mena said.

Born Nov. 5, 1950, in Marcianise, Italy, just north of Naples, a young Nancy with four siblings of her own had no idea that she would cross an ocean to leave her bustling city life for then-sleepy New Canaan and a man named Giuseppe whose aunt did some effective match making when he took a vacation from his life in the States to visit his own hometown, the very same as Nancy’s.

Nancy and Joe Colella married on April 18, 1971. Contributed

Nancy and Joe Colella married on April 18, 1971. Contributed

After meeting his future wife, Joe returned to the United States, where he had lived since 1959 and courted beautiful, chestnut-haired Nancy long distance for a year with phone calls, letters, and flowers, when he again returned to Italy for his annual trip.

It was then that she agreed to marry him, and they—she at age 20 and he at 30—exchanged vows on April 18, 1971, after which the newlyweds began their life together in the States.

The day after arriving on American soil, Nancy walked into Joe’s Pizza, against the national backdrop of a Nixon White House and at a time when New Canaan had more gas stations than banks, but only one pizza place.

Nancy, young Lorenzo, and Joe Colella. Contributed

Nancy, young Lorenzo, and Joe Colella. Contributed

She recalled feeling a bit lonely at first since she didn’t speak English, missed her family back in Italy, and didn’t drive—yet all of that changed.

“I taught myself how to drive on East Avenue one quiet Sunday,” Nancy recalled. “I was scared, but I wanted to learn. I got the car from the store parking lot onto East Avenue, but I didn’t know how to get it back. I called Joe, who said that since I was the one who had gotten the car onto East Avenue, I had to get it back into the parking lot. And so I figured it out, and I was scared, but I did it.”

Joe and Nancy Colella. Contributed

Joe and Nancy Colella. Contributed

She did the same with learning English—just did it—and she credits her husband and the customers of Joe’s Pizza for that accomplishment as she and Joe raised their four children essentially within the walls of the pizzeria.

Inherent in Nancy is her own strength and determination, evidenced by all she has done over the years for her children—her eldest, a girl, born in 1972. They’re the first to describe the many ways in which their mother has inspired them.

The Colella family at the Christmas table, 2014. Contributed

The Colella family at the Christmas table, 2014. Contributed

Nancy would spend six days a week in the store with Joe—more than enough time to pass on lessons of her fortitude, her love, and her talent in the kitchen, her kids recalled.

Until recently, Nancy had been making the special lasagnas, manicotti, pizza dough, the sauce, and eggplant parm—among other Italian dishe— from scratch. In fact, the meatball recipe still made each day at Joe’s Pizza is the very one Nancy brought with her from Italy.

Both Lorenzo and Mena recalled growing up in the store and how they were always with their mother and father since their parents’ own family members, most of whom were back in Italy, were unable to give the young couple a hand with child care.

“She always kept us close, always protecting us. She wanted us to be with her,” Lorenzo said. “We grew up in the micro society of Joe’s Pizza. All of our birthday parties were there, everything was there.”

Mena added: “Yes, it was like our nest,” describing the play space—known as “The Little House”—that Nancy and Joe created for their children out of a storage room at the pizza place so the family could always be together.

“We had a little TV in there, toys in there, a place to nap in there—all right near the pizza boxes,” Mena recalled. Even when they began school, their world revolved around school, the pizzeria, and home on Main Street.

Nancy also worked on her feet in a kitchen while expecting a fourth child. Describing what it was like to carry her youngest child Serra and work full-time at Joe’s Pizza with her three young children underfoot, a petite Nancy exhaled.

“I was tired,” she said, “but I was okay.”

According to Lorenzo, his mom would lift 50-pound bags of flour into the commercial mixing bowl, which ended up producing 60 pounds of dough.

She would then proceed to make all of the pizza dough, and this physically demanding task would happen two to three times per week in addition to the fine attention to detail Nancy would exert in making all of the Italian dishes herself from cleaning, slicing and breading fresh eggplant to achieving the right balance of spices in her red sauce.

Now a mother herself, Mena said she lives in awe of her own mother’s support and resiliency, and she is impressed by Nancy’s ability to do whatever necessary to make sure her family was kept cared for and close.

“I remember thinking as a young girl that I wanted to be like my mother because she is superwoman,” Mena said. “She worked so hard and did it all, did everything for us.”

She continued: “Even with how hard she worked all of the time, our mom always found the time to come to school for things, shows, when our sister was in Fiddler on the Roof … She made sure we were involved at school, and she was always in the front (of the audience), over to the side. She was always taking care of us.”

When asked, woman to woman, how she worked day in and day out with her spouse six days a week, Nancy replied with a weary laugh and admitted, “It was tough. But I did it for my children … and for love.”

Lorenzo pointed out that the small wall and window separating the back of the store and the kitchen from the front of the store where Joe served the customers might have also helped.

Although Joe’s Pizza (originally Village Pizza) has existed in three locations in town, Joe and Nancy’s work was never more than a half-mile away from home.

Their first pizzeria location opened in 1967 where New Canaan Pizza is now on East Avenue—a full decade before the Cherry Street extension was established. The second location was on Forest Street, now home to Farmers Table, which today shares a rear entrance area with Joe’s Pizza’s current location on Locust Avenue, and the Colellas have been on Locust since 1995.

All of the Colella children have worked for various stints in the store alongside their parents, and Nancy and Mena both agreed that when the children took turns making the pizzas, there was “always a mess.”

As the Colella children grew older, Nancy fostered a sense of independence in them bit by bit by establishing the ritual of chores both in and out of the store. As children, Mena and Lorenzo, along with their older sister Nancy, were often sent to walk up the street to Grand Central Market on Main Street (now known as the location of Garelick and Herbs) to pick up 20 pounds of ground beef from the butcher. It was at Grand Central Market where Lorenzo discovered that his frequent errand would reap a reward coveted by any young boy: a remote control car that was being raffled off in the grocery store.

“Every time we went to pick up the ground beef, I filled out a slip with my name on it. I thought I was in trouble when they called my mother one day, but it was to give me the message that I had won the car. They said that almost every entry in the raffle jar had my name on it.”

With hard work comes reward, and that is one of the many lessons Lorenzo said he has learned from his parents.

Especially in the early days of Joe’s Pizza when there were several tables for dining in, Nancy viewed patrons as customers, of course, but it did not take long for customers to become extended family.

When a young couple works six days a week in their restaurant and people become regulars, the gray area between home life and work overlaps, and a strong customer-proprietor rapport evolved into friendships.

Nancy said that working all of those years at Joe’s Pizza was akin to opening the doors and “cooking for family. You knew everybody.”

According to Nancy, when she first moved here many years ago and knew no one in town other than her husband, a certain customer named ‘Mrs. White’ surprised her with a welcome gift, and the two became friends.

Another customer-become-family-friend was ‘Mr. Blomgren,’ who brought food and flowers to Nancy when she had a knee operation many years ago. Nancy said she values the small town feeling and thoughtfulness that New Canaan has always offered although the town has grown and many new families might not live here as long as others or even know the history of Joe’s Pizza.

“Even now,” Lorenzo said, “longtime customers will come in and say how they remember me as a baby in diapers.”

He laughed as he described a typical Friday nights—still the busiest day of the week at Joe’s Pizza— when he was around 12 and most people were able to watch their favorite TV shows.

“I had to ride my bike home to record Dallas and Falcon Crest on the VCR for my mom so she could watch them later. I got on my BMX, rode home, pressed record, then rode by the Mobil Station and Morse Court before heading back to help out at the store.”

Each Colella has lived with a close relationship between the business and family life.

Nancy said her own business advice is to “work and make good food” while her advice for life is, “Enjoy it because life is very short.”

The two pieces of advice overlap, according to Nancy.

“Business is number one because it helps give your kids opportunities to enjoy life,” she said.

Although the Colella family has visited Italy numerous times over the years, and they went to Disney once when the kids were young back in the 1980s, Nancy said she hopes her own children will take more vacations than she did.

Lorenzo, who recently became a father himself, said he has come to see it as important to find that work-life balance, perhaps because he has witnessed his parents’ steadfast example. With 6-week-old Leo at home, Lorenzo said he recognizes that everyone should try to enjoy life more, as his mother advises.

“Twenty-four-seven, it’s working, but in the same instant, when we were all there [at the pizzeria], it was like being home, with family. Even now, people come to Joe’s, and it’s like my buddy coming to visit, it’s like family. That’s what’s cool about a family business… you care, people care.”

Nancy’s own time at the pizzeria has decreased due to her current battle with cancer, but she and her family plan to cook up a storm as they prepare for the traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes next week for Christmas Eve.

This year she will have many capable hands in the kitchen with Mena and Lorenzo, who will close the store for both Christmas Eve and Day so the growing family can be together.

“Stuffed lobster, cod, clams, calamari, shrimp, mussels, octopus, crab,” Lorenzo said. “We have at least seven types of fish on Christmas Eve and sometimes nine. I’ve gotta see what we’re going to do this year. We used to prepare it all at the store and then bring it here.”

Nancy described the dish she plans to make for Christmas—“Macaroni, mini meatballs, chopped eggs, stuffed peppers”—because it is one of Lorenzo’s favorites. Although her grown son is more than capable of making it himself, it’s a mother’s loving touch that makes a meal even more delicious, she said.

As she tied festive ribbon around the cellophane packages of sweets she had just prepared, Mena pointed out that her cousins had visited recently and had helped decorate the family’s exquisite Christmas tree, yet normally Nancy is the one to bring out all the stops.

“She usually does a lot more with lights, a little village, Santa, Christmas dolls, but not this year,” Mena said.

Nancy nodded and pulled her cozy sweater tighter around herself. “Next year, if I feel good, I’ll put everything out.”

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