Exuberant city businessman left his mark

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Joe di Maio was one of Hamilton’s best known – and most loved – businessmen, and a pioneer of the city’s dining scene.

Hamilton has two things to thank Joe di Maio for: 20 years of mouth-watering pizza and excellent coffee and a giant Christmas tree towering over the CBD every December.

For years even the dampest wintry day in Garden Place had one thing going for it: a burst of music – usually Italian – carried on the chill wind.

Opened in 1981 and situated next to the library – pre-dating it by at least a decade – the crisp red-and-white decor of Joe’s Gelato Arlecchino, replete with large Italian copper-and-brass espresso machine, boosted the spirits and energy levels of Hamiltonians.

Deputy mayor Martin Gallagher described Joe, who served two terms as a city councillor, as a larger-than-life character, an extroverted and boisterous expat.

“Joe’s spot in Garden Place was an iconic Hamilton eatery. It was Joe’s dream to open a place like that, and he took great pride in serving up authentic Italian pizza and gelato, and espresso from a tremendous golden machine which caught the attention as much as Joe’s trademark lively conversation.

“He was an absolute legend of the central city.”

Such was his mana that when Joe retired 21 years later, the Italian ambassador Roberto Palmieri flew in to honour the occasion.

When Joe pulled into town, Hamilton was a vastly different place. In the wider city, milk bars, huge booze bars, nightclubs, and restaurants such as Cobb & Co were about all that was on offer.

Joe’s gelato, pastries, pizza, and coffee dragged the city’s entertainment scene from its slumber.

It was Joe, supposedly, who was the first to put a table outside, beginning the city’s love affair with alfresco dining.

Joe came to New Zealand as a raw teenager with little English in 1951.

As he told it, his typical “Italian mama”, Letizia, encouraged him to emigrate when he was just 17.

She packed his bags, even including precious cheeses and salamis (which were, of course, confiscated by Sydney customs) and sent him on his way.

Said Joe: “It was after the war, there wasn’t much of a choice in Italy.”

His mother remained a daily presence in the form of a large photo in his gelateria.

New Zealand perfectly suited Joe’s work ethic and versatility. He was met off the flying boat from Sydney by his uncle, who took him to Nelson, where he worked growing tomatoes for three years.

He then went back to his original profession as a cabinetmaker, working for a time on a dam being built in the Cobb Valley. Also, while in the Nelson area, he learnt ballroom dancing and became a professional dancer.

In 1953 he applied for a carpenter’s job in Murupara and stayed in the small Bay of Plenty timber town for 25 years. While there he decided to change his profession, and as Murupara had no hairdresser, he went to Wellington to train, and then opened a salon.

He also had other businesses at times: an auctioneers, a menswear shop, a coffee bar, and even a taxi. Most nights he worked the midnight shift.

Joe served the Murupara community in the St John ambulance, the fire brigade, and on the borough council for nine years. 

When he had a spare moment, he exported rugs to Italy.

In Hamilton, Joe developed a circle of Italian friends including Pino Grille, who helped him set up Gelatos, Hugo Gini, Paolo Spadoni, and cricketer Daniel Vettori’s father, Diego.

Joe admitted just before he retired from the gelatoria  in 2002 that, at times, he had found it hard to stick out the two decades in Garden Place.

“In some ways I feel as if I have served 20 years in jail because I’ve been fixed to the one venue for so long. But I have had wonderful inmates. I’ve met so many good people, they’ve been my soul,” he said at the time.

His tolerance and acceptance of children was legendary, with one customer telling the Times’ that Joe did not get “all uptight” and insist on high chairs and peace and quiet.

Pinned to the wall when he shut up shop for good was a card from a Melville Primary School pupil following a class visit.

“Dear Joe, Thank you for taking as (sic) from (sic) your shop and giving us an ice cream too. And thanks for the hot dog. The ice cream was the best. From Shane”.

Joe successfully stood for Hamilton City Council in 2004 and was re-elected in 2007.

Councillor Dave Macpherson says he was noted for his friendliness to colleagues around the council table.

In 2007 Joe initiated an Italian migrant exhibition at the Waikato Museum after being part of the planning process for a larger exhibition at Te Papa in Wellington called “Qui tutto bene”. His tremendous golden espresso machine featured prominently in both.

Former deputy mayor Gordon Chesterman said Joe was influential in securing Hamilton’s giant Christmas tree, placed in Garden Place – just metres from the old Gelato Arlecchino site – every festive season.

The flag above the council building flew at half-mast when Joe was farewelled at St Peter’s Church in Cambridge.

Joe was father and father-in-law of Carina and Hugo, Angelina and David, Giovanni and Harriet, Mario and Hope, and Antonia and Steve; Nonno of Beccy, Jess, Bella, Luca, Matteo, Valentina, Lorenzo, Edie, Evita, and Nina; and the former husband of Jan Kissane.

By Charles Riddle  |  Guiseppe di Maio (Joe) March 12, 1933 – February 16, 2019

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