That’s a lot of lemons

By Kathryn Gallien

Everybody loved Joe Aiello’s lemons. The young man who immigrated in 1908 from a small fishing village in Sicily found quick success on the streets of New York City with his fruit-filled pushcart. Customers kept coming back, because his lemons were the juiciest.

More than a century later, you can get lemons and much more from his grandson, Joe Aiello, president of Joseph Aiello and Sons Produce and just the third company head since the business started in 1914. From his warehouse in downtown Albany, Joe recalls how his forebears, like many of their peers, “all started operating pushcarts.”

Aiello advertising placard, 1994. Courtesy Kathryn Gallien.

His grandfather was particularly successful.  “My father told me that one of the reasons he sold a lot of lemons was because he came up with this trick where he would roll the lemons under his feet to soften them up, and the people would say ‘wow this is the juiciest lemon I ever had’,” says Joe.  “And from what I gather he was a tremendous personality, a really nice guy, and people loved him.” As the story came down in family lore, that first Joe Aiello’s success caught the eye of the Cosa Nostra, which tried to recruit the enterprising young man.

And that, says today’s Joe, “is when he came to Albany—time to get the hell out of New York.”

Joe joined his brother John, who had made his way upriver in 1912, and in 1914, they formed John Aiello and Brother. They started out at 97 Hudson Ave., and as the business prospered, the brothers were able to purchase a number of properties near the Lyon Block.

The Aiello brothers were part of a wave of Italian immigration to the United State between 1900-1920. In Albany, these immigrants built a community centered around St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church and Sons of Italy Hall in the South End. Many were laborers from Southern Italy seeking greater opportunity. Initially, they battled prejudice and struggled to find work. But they soon made their way in the produce business, previously dominated by Irish immigrants. By 1941, writes William Kennedy in O Albany, “the Irish were all but out of it … and it was Aiello and Caruso and Rinella and Battaglia and Ciccolella and Pepicelli and Scarlata who now knew their onions.”

Aiello & Brother warehouse at the corner of Market and Grand streets, 1935. Courtesy Times Union.

 John Aiello and Brother became a leading produce dealer. According to a 1934 Times Union story, the firm “did a large business in distributing fresh fruits and vegetables to storekeepers throughout the Albany Area.” Even when many farmers and distributors left the Lyon Block for the new Menands Regional Market, the Aiello business stayed put. Like many other successful families, the Aiellos had by then moved out of the South End and into middle-class neighborhoods in western Albany.

Map segment showing 22-26 Grand St, ca. 1961. Courtesy Sanborn Map Co.

It was the “Brother” end of the business that carried on into the next generation. Joe’s sons, George and Joe (yes, there have been three Joe Aiellos), attended Christian Brothers Academy in Albany and joined the family business, which by 1935 spanned 22-26 Grand St. “My Uncle, George Aiello, could regale you with great, colorful stories about the ‘olden days’ in the produce business,” today’s Joe (the third one) recalls, “with great detail about how they used to deliver fresh vegetables with horse and wagon. He had very vivid dreams (maybe sometimes nightmares) about loads of strawberries, cantaloupes, and iceberg lettuce—which, by the way, received its moniker from the mountains of ice they used to load on top of the product when it was placed in railcars.”

The first Joe stands at the entrance to Alfsonso’s, ca. 1960. Courtesy Aiello family.

 In 1951, the Aiellos took over Panetta’s Restaurant in the building they owned at the corner of Hudson and Grand. The elder Joe operated it as Alfonso’s Italian and French Restaurant Inc. By the early 1960s the family business, now Joseph Aiello and Sons, also owned a warehouse at Philip and Market streets. They managed Hudson Ave. properties under I. L. O. (or Aiello) Realty Corp., with tenants including European Tile Co. and the Western Beef House. Second-generation Joe’s wife Flora was Secretary-Treasurer of  European Tile Co., a business started by her father, Albert Gaspary, and run by her brothers, Leonard and Joseph.

These properties were all seized and demolished for the South Mall.

Elder Joe’s wife Dorothy, as company VP, challenged the State’s appraisal on 98 Hudson Ave. (we have that legal challenge to thank for interior shots of Alfonso’s). Due to her threat to take the State to court, Dorothy garnered a $48,000 settlement—roughly $425,000 in today’s dollars. The Aiellos moved the restaurant to a building they owned on the other side of the street, just outside the taking line, where it operated at 83-87 Hudson Ave. “The cook there was a man by the name of Frank Mugrace,” Joe recalls today. “I have a distinct memory of sitting at the bar at Alfonso’s around six years old and eating his rice pudding, which to this day I still love.” Incredibly, many years later, he met Frank’s daughter Francesca Mugrace, and they married in 1995. “When we met, I had no idea it was her father who worked for my grandfather,” Joe says.

Western Beef House on Grand St., across Market St. from the Aiello warehouse, 1962. NYS Archives.

After the elder Joe died in 1967, the second-generation brothers built a new produce warehouse on Dongan Ave. and began renting out 83 Hudson Ave. By 1980 Joe and George—“the least hip people you could meet,” according to today’s Joe—found themselves landlords to the semi-legendary alt-rock Chateau Lounge. The Chateau closed in 1984, and before long, Albany County  seized the Aiello property, this time for construction of the  Knickerbocker Arena, later renamed the Times Union Center and now MVP Arena. Demolition of some 12 buildings began in January 1987 on the eight-acre site bounded by Beaver, Eagle, and South Pearl streets and the South Mall Arterial.

Ever adaptable, Joe and George  focused on running their produce business on Dongan Ave.

Were they bitter about being displaced twice?

“My family, we are sort of fatalists. We just roll with the punches. They never really got mad,” says Joe of his father and uncle. “They just accepted it.”

The third Joe, 2021. Courtesy Kathryn Gallien.

Aiello and Sons Produce Co. has remained on Dongan Ave. since 1968, but there have been some challenging years as the industry evolved. As Joe explains it: “Back in the old days there used to be a butcher, and a fishmonger, and a vegetable guy, all different stores, and it used to be the same in the wholesale business too.” But SYSCO Food Services came along and grew from a canned goods company to an all-in-one food distribution model, and by the time Joe graduated from Colgate University in 1984 it was “a solid competitor, a multimillion company.” And the produce industry changed again with the advent of big box warehouse operations like Restaurant Depot, where restaurateurs can walk in and pick up everything they need in one spot.

What keeps Aiello’s going, according to Joe, is service.

“Look, I work hard, I try to take care of my people as best as I can, and I get a lot of referrals. You call me up, and I’ll drop the stuff off, so you don’t have to wait.” His customers are a mix of stores, restaurants, institutional businesses, and a few individual clients for whom he sources specialty items for home olive curing and wine making. He also leases out warehouse space to a bakery, a tomato sauce maker, and a hot sauce maker. While there have been difficult years, Joe says “it’s my destiny,” laughing that he was “guilted into” taking on the business. “I make a living, but I’m not getting rich,” he says, adding with a smile, “I don’t make money; I make friends.”

He’s proud to have followed in his father’s and uncle’s footsteps, and he’s happy to be selling food that’s good for people. But he will be the last Joe to run Aiello’s, as none of his children are interested. So for now Joe is carrying on a family business that has lasted 119 years, across dozens of buildings, through two property seizures, with just three generations of Joe Aiellos at the helm—and untold thousands of lemons sold.

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