Over the last 21 years, Enrico “Jo-Jo” Armetta has always tried to stay out of the spotlight, despite owning and running Jo Jo’s Famous Pizza, a New York-style joint at 1201 E. Main St.
“I lay low,” Armetta said. “I’m just a hard worker with a little pizza joint on the corner of 12th and Main.”
Now, armed with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a lifetime of pizza experience, Armetta is stepping up – and responding to decreased foot traffic downtown – with an expansion of Jo Jo’s to Midlothian.
Armetta is planning to open Jo Jo’s Pizza Southside at 133 Browns Way Road. The downtown Jo Jo’s will remain open.
Like most downtown restaurants, Armetta said Jo Jo’s got crushed by the pandemic. With downtown workers working from home, his lunch crowd thinned, and he said that at one point last year he considered selling the business and moving on.
“I get so emotional, I’ve cried myself to sleep in the last year because I’ve watched my business crumble,” he said. “No one thought (the coronavirus) was gonna last this long, so I wasn’t even thinking of opening another place. I came really close to saying, ‘You know what? I’ll sell it and get a job.’”
Things got worse after the riots that accompanied last summer’s social justice demonstrations. Armetta said he was upset with a perception that downtown suddenly became a dangerous place during business hours.
“People were saying ‘Stay home, work from there, there’s no need to come downtown.’ Come on, that’s such BS,” Armetta said.
“Being from Brooklyn, it doesn’t phase me. I’m used to it,” he said. “Does it piss me off? Yeah. Does it get to the point where I get mad and give up? Hell no.”
So Armetta started keeping an eye out for a second spot for Jo Jo’s, while not turning his back on his downtown location.
One day he spotted a for lease sign in the window of a space just off Midlothian Turnpike, near its intersection with North Woolridge Road. Another pizzeria, A N.Y. Slice, had previously operated there but closed in February.
Armetta said he called the landlord and quickly signed a lease. He’s aiming to open in May and is currently renovating the space.
While the downtown location will continue with a focus on pizza, calzones and subs, Armetta said Jo Jo’s Southside will have an expanded menu with chicken wings, a few pasta dishes and beer and wine, in addition to pizza.
“It’s going to be a more upgraded version of my spot downtown that still looks like it’s from the 1980s in Brooklyn. I think that’s what makes me original and it sets me apart,” he said. “I’m not one of those restaurants that has an extensive menu with 80 things on it where, realistically, half of them are no good.”
After growing up in New York and spending a few years in Sicily, Armetta came to Richmond in the 1990s to work for his uncle Frank, who used to own Franco’s Ristorante on West Broad Street.
Armetta’s cousin, Paolo Randazzo was also in the family business before starting Sensi in Shockoe Bottom and Portico Restaurant & Bar on River Road in Goochland. Sensi has since closed, but Portico is still open serving upscale Italian fare.
When Armetta started his own spot in 2000 with Jo Jo’s, he went a slightly different path than his cousin. While Portico’s menu features entrees like veal piccata and salmon roulade, Jo Jo’s has become known for its lunch special: two slices and a soda for $8.
“Paolo, he’s the best chef in all of Richmond if you ask me. I don’t consider myself a chef by any means. I always put myself down, like I don’t have a college degree or know how to say the big words,” Armetta said, laughing. “But my market is pizza. That’s what I’m known for. I keep it simple.”
While he prepares Jo Jo’s Southside for its opening, Armetta will continue running the downtown location where he is every weekday. He said he’s grateful for every order he gets, and he’s often behind the counter, taking orders and making deliveries himself.
“Everyone calls me an institution. It gives me goosebumps when people say that,” he said. “Jo Jo’s does well because I’m an owner-operator and I’m always here. And it’s all about finding good people. You need an army to go to war, and you need one to open a restaurant.”