By Sharon Oliver, Contributing Writer
BOSTON – Michael Valerio emigrated from Italy at age five to East Boston during the 1930s. We may never know if he ever envisioned his tiny pizza-by-the-slice business morphing into an iconic franchise. Papa Gino’s is for many people raised in New England a place they have many memories of eating at when they were kids, or perhaps even working at one as a teenager.
In 1961, Valerio and his wife Helen worked long hours, refusing to go into debt and eventually began expanding their operation to multiple locations, mostly in downtown Boston. Valerio funded the first restaurant using his military service earnings that his mother saved for him while he served overseas during the Korean War. They later changed its name from Piece O’ Pizza to Papa Gino’s in honor of his brother. Due to the limited amount of seating, they initially focused on window takeout orders of grilled sandwiches and thin crust pizza at their Bennington Street location. By 1975, Papa Gino’s successfully opened units in malls and shopping centers.
Valerio opened restaurants in Brockton, Canton, Dorchester, East Cambridge, Revere Beach, and Roxbury for his devoted customers. Eventually, the couple built over 300 privately held restaurants and employed over 7,000 employees in New England, upstate New York, and Florida. By the time Michael and Helen Valerio sold the chain in 1991, after the economy soured and went into a recession in 1990, the couple had owned 220 Papa Gino’s restaurants across New England.
Multiple sales in later years
Sold to a group of investors in 1991, the Papa Gino’s chain was saddled with heavy debt and reduced to 180 units in early 1996. In 1997, Papa Gino’s was bought by D’Angelo Sandwich Shops, another popular Massachusetts based fast-food outlet. Months later, executives of a holding company known as Papa Gino’s Holdings Corporation (now PGHC) bought out the company.
In 2018, the chain filed for bankruptcy and several Papa Gino’s locations closed abruptly, including their only location in Maine at the Auburn Mall, reducing the chain to 97 locations. As of 2023, there are 79 Papa Gino’s locations throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
Knack for promotion
Two distinguishing features of the restaurant chain are its charity work and commitment to keeping customers informed. Things like upcoming contests to win free pizzas, swag offers and honoring National Pizza Month, which is celebrated every October. Customers also have the opportunity to nominate someone to win a free pizza party delivery, participate in fundraising, and give donations in support of cancer care research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Jimmy Fund.
Many New Englanders still favor Papa Gino’s pizza for its rustic crust and savory sauce and have fond childhood memories of first entering the premises with its red and white checkered tables. And what about those special days like “All you can eat pizza Tuesdays,” “All you can eat spaghetti Wednesdays,” and “3-minute lunches”? Some also remember going behind the counter as a child to make a pizza for their birthday.
On June 14, 2022, it was revealed that Papa Gino’s would be opening a new restaurant for the first time since it emerged from bankruptcy. Papa Gino’s founder Michael Valerio maintained his passion for cooking well after retirement. He died at his home in 2020 at the age of 89, survived by his wife Helen, three children and two grandsons.