Joe Vulpitta is the Heart of J&J's Pizza
Hanging on the muddy stone walls of J&J's Pizza are pictures that capture moments of the man who partnered with Jaime Ham to build a pizza place that regards its employees and regulars as family. The Old Dirty Basement closed down last August, a few days before the 2-year anniversary of the passing away of Joe Vulpitta, who put his heart and soul into making J&J's the community staple it has become.
As Valentine's dates pass under the painting of Joe and his wife in their wedding outfits, they might not realize they're high school sweethearts that married on Valentine's Day. You can easily believe that they did their anniversary celebrations in grand fashion every year.
The pair grew up in Chicago, where Joe ran several restaurants, but they moved to Denton to be near their children and grandchildren. Twenty years ago this month, Vulpitta and Jaime Ham set up shop on Dallas Drive, but they had their eyes on the Gatti's pizza shop on the square. One day, the store manager left the place locked without notifying employees that they would no longer be open. Ham found out when he ended up at a "We Got Fired!" party held after the surprise closing.
It was in 2001 that J&J's moved to the square, but the basement wasn't available for hosting shows due to bad upkeep of the previous owners (who were hosting shows that sometimes got out of hand). Ham spent nearly every day for a year working on the basement to bring it up to city code. He and his friends would meet up for a few drinks on the square, and then work through odd hours of the night making improvements in the basement. That's the special dedication it takes to launch an entertainment space. With bruises, sweat, and time, they put together a Denton-esque venue that was originally envisioned to be for jazz bands.
That intention is reminiscent of how Hilly Kristal's legendary punk/new wave club CBGB was originally meant to feature country, bluegrass, and blues. And Joe Vulpitta supported the open-minded booking that filled the Old Dirty Basement with any genre anyone could think up. When it comes to the great memories of shows in the ODB, credit goes to the Denton community for shaping the venue with music, poetry, comedy, and art shows.
Vulpitta was especially a huge fan of Sarah Jaffe, and he was through the roof on the evening Jaffe performed in the basement to a packed room. It's a little known fact that Sarah Jaffe was hired to work at J&J's, but her career blew up the week she was to start working. Whether she realizes it or not, the night she brought her act to J&J's was a special night where an excited Joe Vulpitta viewed the show from the back.
Ham describes his late business partner as "one in a million." He was a cool dude that valued family and community. He was a first generation Italian whose mom came from Naples to Ellis Island on the Italia. That ship's log hangs to the right of the soda machine in the shop. When he was a young man he was a boxer and a professional baseball player for a Milwaukee Braves affilliate. He quit baseball because he could make more money as a butcher being paid $90 a week.
J&J's manager Andie Lotspeich was one of the few people who learned cooking secrets from Vulpitta. She says, "He was the boss that would always feed you if you were hungry or bail you out of jail if you had no one to call... He would give you a ride if you needed a flat or had to walk in the rain."
Joe Vulpitta's kind way of living was an everyday influence on the family and colleagues that survive him. Ham says, "He was devoted to this family and bringing people together." When Denton comes together to remember influential people that have had a part in building this community, they should think of Joe.
Photo by Mateo Granados