"This isn't just a pizza place," said Joe Barbaro. "It's my life."
Indeed, he works 18 hours a day at his Regina Pizzeria on Allentown Way in Camp Springs, and at the new place he is building on nearby Allentown Road.
Making the move from pizza parlor to pizza palace occupies most of his time these days, as the new edifice, with its brick Roman arches built by his best friend Charles Gorgorne and terrazzo tile floors he laid himself, nears completion. For this Italian immigrant who came here in 1956 with no knowledge of English and little education, it is the American dream come true.
But it is more than that. Barbaro, 46, an unpretentious man who favors white T-shirts, is a local institution and a sort of one-man social agency who takes the teen-agers he hires under his wing, sponsors sports teams for young people and adults and gives away food to friends and others in need.
His pizza is air-lifted all over the world, he says. Customers from nearby Andrews Air Force Base take along a yearning for it when they are transferred to locales as distant as Hawaii and West Germany. So, Barbaro's product has been flown halfway around the world.
"The people who live in Germany, they say to friends flying from here to Europe, 'Go by Joe's and bring me a pizza.' I make it, freeze it, they take it cold and deliver it . . . " Barbaro said. He has also sent pizza aloft to Florida, Arizona, Texas, California and Hawaii.
"I will always remember when Mitch came home from a business trip in D.C. with two of your partially cooked pizzas -- carried them right on the plane (and we lived in Canada at the time!)," a woman wrote from Nashua, N.H., in Barbaro's cherished guest book.
"The only thing I miss is your pizza," wrote a fan from Hickham Air Force Base in Honolulu who had been stationed at Andrews.
"The best pizza I've ever had. Worthy of the White House," wrote Esther Peterson, President Carter's consumer adviser, in September 1980.
Heady stuff for a humble immigrant from a small Italian town.
Barbaro came to the United States from outside Reggio, on the southwestern coast of Italy. He was preceded the year before by his father, who died five years ago. They lived at first with an uncle on Butternut Street NW in Washington. Barbaro worked in a pizza place clearing tables and mopping floors for 10 cents an hour, then got a job as a tile-setter, "because," he says, "when you come from Italy, there is no much you can do but labor."
He married the girl he left behind and brought her here. They lived on Whittier Street NW and then in Chillum, a close-in suburb in Prince George's County. He opened Regina Pizzeria in 1972 -- naming it after his home-town soccer team in Reggio. The family moved six years ago to a brick house on a hill overlooking the new pizza palace on Allentown Road.
With steeply rising rents, Barbaro had decided he had to have his own place. It will seat 150, compared to 97 at the old restaurant, and he will have tenants of his own: a beauty parlor, a gift shop and a real estate firm.
"This was my chance to show my self and my friends I can actually do this," he said. "I put everything on the line, including my self-respect."
The county planners had recommended against his dream: They said it did not conform to the county's master plan, which called for high-density residential development. But Barbaro's supporters were legion: Nearly 600 persons signed petitions on his behalf, and only one person spoke against commercial development on the site.
"This business has become an institution," hearing examiner Richard A. Romaine wrote. "Businessmen regularly meet for lunch at the establishment. Children in the area are employed regularly, giving them a good first work experience." In November 1983, the County Council gave him the go-ahead, 9 to 0.
Barbaro and Giovanna, his wife, have three children, Santina, 22, Nino, 20, and Mariella, 19. The oldest has married an Italian whose family lived next to Barbaro's in Archi, a suburb of Reggio. His son-in-law works for the Fiat car manufacturer, but Barbaro expects the couple to return to Prince George's to work in the pizzeria.
"This is more important than Fiat to him and me," he says. "I am the head of the family. Everything I got belongs to my kids, eventually."
Barbaro has brought his Old World ways to New World pizza lovers. He grows his own basil and parsley for the spaghetti sauce, which simmers for eight to 10 hours in a 40-gallon vat. He grates his cheese and makes his own sausage.
The pizza dough gets tossed in the air with a twist of the wrist, which forms the crust. Pizza gets made by the window, "New York-style," so customers can watch.
He employs about 20 workers, most of them young people. "Most of the kids who work here, they're just like my own," he said. "Sometimes, I think I'm too soft with them because I'm just like their father."
He believes deeply in the values of hard work and family, and says he considers most of his customers his friends. And he treats them that way.
Recently, he gave a pizza to a customer with 14 children whose luncheon companion had failed to show. Barbaro said had the other man appeared, he didn't know which one would pay.
"The pizza's already made, so what am I going to do?" Barbaro shrugged. "All his kids are my customers since the first day."
His customers also include lawyers from the firm of Troese & Kuta, located across the street. "I gained 10 pounds since I started working at this law firm," complained lawyer Sheryl Negron.
Lawyer Jerry Kuta said Barbaro often sends unsolicited food to their office: "He's the only client we have that's worried about how we eat."
Joe Barbaro is, he admits, an emotional man. He wears his heart on his sleeve, in his pizzas (occasionally heart-shaped) and in the tilework of his new building. In the entranceway on the floor is a heart with his wife's and his initials. And along the counter front, three tiled hearts appear.
He has designed a marble plaque to hang inside the restaurant: "This building is dedicated in memory of my father Antonio Barbaro and also in appreciation to my father-in-law Giuseppe Condello, my wife, and children for their unselfish dedication to make this dream come true."
Oystermen have the blessing of the fleet; Barbaro asked a priest to bless the building site when ground was broken last spring.
The booths arrived last week. The marble counter is in, along with the tiled interior walls, including a tiny tiled room for drive-in purchases. Altogether, there are 3,500 square feet of tile in the new pizza palace, almost all of it put there by Joe Barbaro.
He has videotaped much of the work in progress. Last week, he turned his cassette camera on men who were paving the parking lot and then on a reporter and photographer who were there to visit him.
"See, from the first scoop of dirt till now, it's here," on two or three hours of tape, which he has no idea how to edit, he said: "I'm only a pizza-maker."