If you remember Joe & Nemo’s hole-in-the-wall hot dog joint on Main Street across the street from the First Baptist, at the Crossroads of Malden (Ferry, Salem, Main), then you are a Malden old-timer. But the purpose of this piece isn’t to gloat about our old-time Malden bona fides but to give life back to the memory of the best darned hot dog you ever had. Joe & Nemo’s steamed heavenly treats! Let’s start with a little J&N history. J&N started their hot dog legacy in 1909 on the outskirts of the old West End near Scollay Square on Cambridge Street. Joe Merlino and Anthony (Nemo) Caloggero were barbers who decided one day to purchase a bakery not too far away.
They soon discovered that they were not very good bakers – instead deciding to pursue the side business of selling hot dogs. A dynasty was born. They developed a formula of just the right proportion of beef and pork, specially ground with a carefully developed combination of seasonings, according to what I have learned. The formula was a tightly kept secret much like the Highland Café pizza recipe that Dave Angelo guards with his very life. The rolls were delivered twice a day hot and uncut from a bakery in Chelsea. In 1925 they expanded the menu (slightly) and the space they occupied. They killed it! Staying open (almost) 24 hours a day, seven days a week, closing for a two-hour period each morning to clean and restock. In the 1950s “Institutions Magazine” found in a study of restaurant businesses that J&N ranked 321st in the country for revenue, outpacing local institutions like Locke-Ober, Durgin-Park and Jimmy’s Harborside. Selling hot dogs! They were the best!
The J&N saga continues…when developer/villain to generations of West Enders Jerome Rappaport, with a little help from a few “shortsighted, pig-headed politicians” in power at the time, decided to raze the West End in the name of urban renewal, J&N fell victim. Charles River Park and the new Government Center were born, but millions of dreams were needlessly buried under the rubble of those old tenement streets of the West End. But I digress. At that point J&N had expanded their operation and franchised. From my own memory bank, I can remember the last three J&N’s in the area: At the base of Beacon Hill off Cambridge Street (not the original), North Station across from the “Gahden” and the one located right here in our hometown of Malden.
Fast forward to 1971 and my first memory of J&N in Malden Square: I’m 13 and I spend most of my waking hours at Devir Park. When we’re not playing baseball on Bruce Field, we’re playing softball on the diamond closest to the Dalton’s Shell Gas Station on the Fells. Or we’re playing pickup hoops on one of the two basketball courts at the time. Or we’re tackling each other, imitating “Mean Joe” Greene and the rest of the “Steel Curtain” defense from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Or we’re chilling on the Bandstand with a Big A sub and cold coke. Anyway, Bert Cioffi’s big brother Cliff is our Park Instructor this summer. He introduces us to the Amerige Park way of life – Devir and Amerige to be forever linked by this one man with more charisma than should be allowed – the guy we affectionately called “Choff.” The girls just adored him and all the guys wanted to be like him. So, I become Cliff’s right hand. He takes me under his wing and instills in me something he lived his whole life by: “keep shooting, you’re bound to get hot.”
It’s a hot summer morning (is it just me or were the summers hotter back when we were kids?). I volunteer to help Cliff move something around at his childhood home on Pine Street. (He still lives there, by the way, and he is still moving stuff around.) My reward: Choff’s gonna purchase for me my first “gray t-shirt” at Lee Chisholm’s (Sporting Goods) on Exchange Street and treat me to hot dogs at Joe & Nemo’s in the Square. Best day evah! Choff loads me up with three steamed dogs and a coke. Total cost, 95 cents! The hot dogs were the best I ever had – till this very day. I became a regular throughout high school.
Then one day, they were gone.
Fast forward many years, I started dating the love of my life (eventually to become my wife), Pam Picillo. Come to find out her uncle Henry (Picillo) owned and operated Malden Square’s J&N until its untimely demise and departure from the Square. Pam’s father, Mike, had two sisters and a brother. Well, I’ll let Pam’s cousin, Jimmy “2 Suits” Capone (horn player for the Bellevue Cadillac), take it from here: “Mike married my mother’s sister Lal, and his sister Millie married my mother’s brother Jimmy. Henry Picillo was the franchise owner, Pam’s actual uncle. It was mostly in the 60’s that I remember that place. Actually, not until I got to high school. A small, narrow place, I used to go there after school or at lunch time. My mother’s sister Sue used to work for Henry, and she used to make us a drink she called a ‘zombie’ (a combination of every flavor soda mixed together.) I remember lots of family there that have passed on since. Great, lifelong memories and the best doggies ever.”
Jimmy’s sister Marge (Capone) also was a regular at J&N: “Actually J&N in Malden was run by Pam’s uncle Henry Picillo, her father’s brother. Mike’s sister Catherine was always there working. Henry and Catherine, if I recall, all lived with my uncle Jim in Medford. He married Mike’s other sister Millie. But J&N was the meeting place in the 60’s, my mother would drop us off in the Square on a Saturday, she’d go to Sparks or Jordan Marsh or go to the Washington St home of Mikes and visit his wife Lal (Pam’s mom). We’d go to the Granada then J&N and wait there for her. Henry was a really nice guy. He’d give us a soda cup and let us mix our own soda. A little orange aid, some cola, a little root beer. Then we’d get a hot dog or a burger. If I remember, the burgers were steamed too. Eventually everyone wound up there; Pam, her mother, my mother, brother, and sister – especially if we went to Granada Lanes. My mother loved bowling. Pam has a ton of memories also. But I remember Henry being a real nice guy and Catherine was sweet too.”
Yes, indeed, Pam remembers that the family Christmas Eve would be celebrated in the cozy confines of Joe & Nemo’s. Her father Mike’s friends and the whole extended Italian family would gather, lock the door, load the long counter up with an Italian feast, plenty of spirits and celebrate the holy spirit(s?) J&N-style. She continued: “Every Friday I went to the Malden Public Library then after, I would visit J&N for the giant pickles in the jar on the counter before my ride home on the ‘blue bus.’ Uncle Henry was a soft spoken, unassuming man, complete opposite of my dad (Mike). My Aunt Catherine, who was a spitfire, was always behind the counter with Uncle Henry. Such wonderful family memories.”
“This is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end, my only friend, the end” – so, Joe & Nemo’s disappears from Malden Square (and our lives), but a sole survivor remains for a few more years at the bottom of Beacon Hill right off Cambridge Street close to the Red Hat on Bowdoin Street. From time to time on Saturday mornings, when I would take a ride with my father to the pushcarts at Haymarket, he would treat me to a half dozen or so doggies before the schlep back to Malden. That was the last time I had one of those treasured steamed treats. Something as simple as a steamed hot dog triggered so many pleasant memories from the past, in so many people.
Postscript 1: So, the years are relentless. We go from fresh-faced 10-year-olds to the elders in the room, just like that. And we yearn for the days our parents and grandparents were young and strong, Kings of the whole wide world! Our memories, our old “Kodak Moments” become a lifeline to the most glorious times in our lives (the snapshot above says it all). To Pam’s parents, to my parents, to your parents, Laurence Binyon wrote, “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”
Postscript 2: On a side note, everybody bought their gray t-shirts at Chisholm’s back in the day. That Cliff Cioffi first gray t-shirt bought as a token of our friendship never to be forgotten – Choff paid $1.25 for it, and I wore it until it fell off my back. In those days if you didn’t wear a gray t-shirt (with holes in it) you weren’t allowed on the court at Amerige or Devir (or Ferryway)! True story!
Postscript 3: Dr. Seuss wrote, “Sometimes you will never know the value of something, until it becomes a memory.”
Postscript 4: Extra points if you can identify where I lifted “shortsighted, pig-headed politicians” from.