Family and Flavor Find a Home at Emilia’s


Joanne Lerro is the owner of Emilia’s, a restaurant on Arthur Avenue. (Courtesy of Nicoleta Papavasilakis)

Like many other restaurants on Arthur Avenue, the Bronx’s very own Little Italy, Emilia’s is crowned by a maroon awning with golden letters scrolling across it. The white tablecloths hint at the warm atmosphere, hearty meals and quaint decorations that only a family-owned restaurant can provide. Entering the restaurant to finding a seat at one of the tables indoors or outside on the patio proves the assumed atmosphere of the restaurant true. Emilia’s is a place to relax, eat too much bread (only to regret it when you receive your pasta) and share a few laughs with those you love.

While Emilia’s has been open for 50 years, Joanne Lerro’s father only bought it 25 years ago. Over that time, Lerro took on more and more responsibility from her father. At first, she helped a little here and there by doing the billing and overseeing the menus. Now, while she continues to oversee those duties, she also orders food, liquor and wine. On top of it all, she makes sure that the restaurant runs smoothly. During the rush of the day, she finds herself both upstairs in the office and downstairs in the midst of the tumult of the restaurant. 

“I’ll go up and down when the restaurant’s open to check on how the restaurant’s doing,” said Lerro. Yet, what brings her the most joy is getting to taste test new dishes and try new drinks that are added to the menu. 

Throughout her years of running Emilia’s, one of Lerro’s proudest accomplishments is her transformation of the patio. “We love our patio, because that patio here was nothing. It was just an old Bronx backyard, there was like an old trellis with vines growing out there and nothing we could use. For so many years, we never used it for anything. When we did that, it became a little oasis back there. People are just so surprised when they go back there because it’s so different from anything else; it’s so quiet. You escape the hustle and bustle. You’re just in this cute, little atmosphere.” 

Despite her love of and pride in running the restaurant, Lerro faced particular challenges when first taking over her father’s mantle. Namely, the misogyny of the predominantly male-run industry. “All the sales people that came in, liquor wise or any of that, they were always men. I remember the first time that I was taking over the wine, ordering and doing that kind of thing, and this one older man, who was just not a nice guy, had me crying because I really knew nothing. I was still learning,” said Lerro. 

“That would never happen today. I could never see that happening to my daughters. First of all, they would never accept it; second of all, it was just a different time. Definitely, the business itself has evolved. It’s definitely still male-dominated, but not the same boys club that it was,” she said. 

Working in a predominantly male-dominated industry has taught Lerro what it means for a woman to exist in the business world and what young women should consider as they enter into it: “You have to do what you like, I really, really do. You need to find something that you enjoy doing, and go with it. Stick with it … I tell my daughters, they enjoy what they do. It’s just not hard to get up and go to work everyday when you’re going to do something you like.” This advice is especially profound as we, college students, decide which career path we want to spend the next few decades of our lives pursuing. 

As is apparent through her clear love for her daughters, Lerro places a great deal of value on family. One of the best parts of running a family-owned business is, in her words, that it provides “A great meeting place for the family.” That love extends beyond just her family, to the surrounding community. 

“The whole Fordham community to me is just amazing, because I feel like I know so many of you guys personally. Like, your families and all of that. My mother used to say the same thing when she was in more, and now I find myself saying it. Some of the kids who are abroad haven’t been around, but their friends will come in and tell us what they’re doing. Then, on Parents’ Day, parents will come in. Overall, that’s another great part of this. It’s another great part of being on Arthur Avenue.” 

To end the interview, I asked Lerro the most pressing question: What’s your favorite dish that the restaurant is currently serving? She laughed, her smile evident even through the phone, and replied, “Everyone asks me this, and I find it to be the hardest question because I love everything.” After a minute, however, she continued, “I’ve been in a pasta mood lately, which is not doing well for my jeans. I’m obsessed with our gnocchi. We’re doing a gnocchi in vodka sauce with a burrata on top of it, and I’m kind of obsessed with that right now.”

If you’re looking for an evening out with friends, parents or partners, break the habit of eating at Michaelangelo’s. Walk a little farther, and grab a table at Emilia’s. Try the gnocchi, I hear it’s quite good.