Dana Yates /Daily Journal
Joey Cappello tops cannolis at Romolo's Ice Cream and Cannoli Factory in San Mateo. He is taking over the business 40 years after his grandparents, Romolo and Angela -- pictured on the wall behind him -- opened it.
It took six months for Romolo and Angela Cappello to cough up their secret family recipe for mouth-watering cannolis to grandson Joey Cappello.
It wasn’t until the couple trusted Joey enough with the keys to the business that they let them him in on the 2,000-year-old secret. Joey is the third generation Cappello to work at the San Mateo cannoli and spumoni factory. This summer he takes over the business so his grandparents can retire after working 40 years at their San Mateo shop.
Most people don’t know about the quiet factory and storefront hidden on the quiet retail area on 37th Avenue. Those who do know about it know that for the past five years the Cappellos have close the shop for the summer to vacation in the home country of Sicily. This year will be different.
Joey Cappello, 27, spent months learning from his 70-year-old grandmother and his 76-year-old grandfather how make cannoli shells and filling them. He also learned how to make ice cream, including the store’s well-known spumoni, an Italian cream consisting of pistachio, vanilla and strawberry flavors with candied fruit and nuts. The Sicilian version does not include chocolate unlike northern Italian versions. The store also produces its own fresh ice cream, sorbetto, Italian ice and a handful of other Italian specialties.
With Nonna and Nonno just a phone call away, Cappello is sure he’s ready to take over the family business and make sure it stays true to his grandparent’s vision.
"What is important is where you are from, tradition and how to carry those on,” Cappello said.
Cappello was raised in San Diego, but spent summers at his grandparents’ store. Yet, the idea of taking over the family business didn’t strike Cappello until recently.
He earned a degree in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Ethnomusicology is the study of social and cultural aspects of music and dance in local and global contexts. He is an ethnomusicologist turned ice cream maker. The unique education taught him to appreciate traditions and history.
That’s something very important to Cappello.
He knows where Romolo’s began, where it’s been and where he wants to take it in the future.
His grandparents met and married in a small southern Sicilian town. In the late ’50s, the Cappellos decided to move overseas and pursue the American dream. For Romolo, this meant running an ice cream shop, like the type he worked in as a child. In 1968, the couple opened their first store in the Los Prados neighborhood of San Mateo. A few years later, Romolo Cappello bought the current factory on 37th Avenue and ran two stores for about a year.
From their 37th Avenue factory, the Cappellos worked seven days a week to provide cannolis and spumoni for wholesale and retail. At one point, Romolo’s provided cannolis to numerous restaurants in North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. As they grew older, the couple reduced their workload.
Joey Cappello brings a renewed energy to the business. He managed to talk his father into an extended vacation from his San Diego job to help keep the store running smoothly this summer. He plans to start small, building up the community business and then he will expand the wholesale business, he said.
He already has a cannolis contract with Pasta! Pasta! in downtown San Mateo.
Before he makes the leap to the big time, he’s still got to prove himself to the grandparents.
"They taught me to treat customers well and do what you love,” Cappello said. "My vow is to keep it the same.”
Dana Yates can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.