The traditional tomato pie is a customer favorite at Palermo’s. Owner Giulio Padalino drops on portions of tomato sauce. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Giulio Padalino has two Palermos: the Sicilian town he grew up near, and the recently-renovated restaurant he owns in Bordentown. He also owns the Palermo’s in Roebling.

Padalino was born in Casteltermini, an old-fashioned little town near Palermo, Sicily, with “horses on the street and chickens running around”—as seen in the Godfather films, he says. There was no movie theater and not too many cars. Every Sunday his family went to church. Schools were “more serious” than in the United States—classes six days a week, no multiple-choice tests. Students had to stand up when talking to a teacher. “Over there,” he says, “you learn more.”

Now, 43 years after Padalino first visited the United States, he applies what he learned in Italy daily.

In 1974, when he was 14, he visited his uncle, the barber Bartolo Padalino, in Lawrence. He liked the town so much he decided to stay and attend Lawrence High School as a green card resident. While a student, he got his start in restaurants, working at the Glendale Inn in Trenton and the Italian-American Sportsmen’s Club in Hamilton, starting out as a dishwasher and then moving up the ranks.

“In the beginning, it was a job,” he says. “Little by little, I started to really be interested, to create new plates, dishes, recipes—to experiment.” That’s when Padalino, then a line cook, started to ask his mother and grandmother to share recipes for he particularly liked, like marinara sauce, pasta fagioli, chicken marsala, gnocchi and more.

Padalino started working in the restaurant at its current location, in a small shopping strip on Route 206, in 1990, later joining Marco Graziano as a partner, in 1992. Padalino became a United States citizen in 1990. When Padalino started at the restaurant, he says, “it was a little place; there was ’70s wainscoting on the wall, a carpet, and fans spinning.”

He bought out Graziano in 2010. Five years later, he purchased the shopping center. In 2015, he started the renovation process, expanding the restaurant into the pad next door. With the changes, he hoped to create a cozy, somewhat modern feel. “Casual, but also semi-elegant,” he says.

The traditional tomato pie is a customer favorite at Palermo’s. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

He chose stacked stone columns placed along the walls, wooden floors, and cheery striped curtains. The stones remind him of Sicily, where, he says, “we have everything in stone and cement.” The barber shop in the strip moved down one spot so he could add a second dining room in the storefront adjacent to the original location. The additional space, completed a couple months ago and separated from the main restaurant by a pocket door, has already hosted many private parties.

Padalino did not go straight from Lawrence High, where he graduated in 1978, into the restaurant business.

In 1978, he had to return to Italy to fulfill his draft obligation, which he did through the Carabinieri, which he likens to state troopers in the United States. He was able to postpone for two years while he earned a bachelor’s degree in history at a college in Palermo.
When he tried out teaching after his degree was done, he says, he taught for three weeks, “and then I knew it was not my thing,” he says.

His draft obligation was only for a year’s service, but he stayed in the Carabinieri for five years. In 1983, he married his half-Sicilian, half-German wife, Carmela, who he met while she was vacationing from Munich in Sicily. Today she manages another of the family’s businesses, Angel’s Touch Massage, at 3800 Quakerbridge Road in Hamilton.

Even though he found the work of policing “an exciting job,” where “every day was different,” he eventually gave in to the pleas of his mother and then his wife that he quit because the job was so dangerous. “The Red Brigades [a left-wing paramilitary organization] and the Mafia were always there,” he says.

He then spent about six years as a clerk with the state railroad in Villadossola in northern Italy before deciding to move to the United States permanently in May 1991, when his older son Vincent was five or six and younger son Barry was 18 months.

Vincent, now 31, graduated from Rider University with a degree in business; Barry, 27, majored in English at The College of New Jersey. Padalino says, “When it was time to look for a job, they both said, ‘We’d rather stay in the restaurant business.’” So, his sons both took the traditional route, from busboys and waiters to cooking and now managing, which they do today. Both live in Lawrenceville.

Looking back on his varied work and living experiences, Padalino says he has the spirit of an adventurer. “I’ve always had no fear of the unknown, which is why I had no problem to stay here, far away from my siblings, my father, and my mother. That’s my spirit, the way I am. I have no fear of trying new things,” he says.