By Elizabeth F. McNamara
It’s a funny thing, to live next door to a town icon. Moving to East Greenwich 30 plus years ago from out of state, we had no idea what we were getting. We got a lot over the years, as did everyone who knew Joe Zenga.
Joe’s big heart finally gave out last week in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s hard to imagine East Greenwich without him.
For many, it starts with Zenga’s Restaurant, a palace of Italo-American cuisine on Main Street (Cafe Fresco occupies the space now), started by his father Joe Sr. that Joe eventually took over.
Lots of people dined there over the years. Greg Dantas remembers going there as a kid, with his grandmother and aunt. It was the start of a long friendship across the generations. As a teenager, Dantas worked at Thorpe’s Pharmacy* where he’d often see Joe, who was always happy to talk. By the time Dantas went into real estate, Joe had established himself as a major player in the local rental real estate scene, owning dozens of rental apartments. When Dantas opened Rhode Island Real Estate in 2012, Joe called, telling the younger man he wanted to invest in his company. “I believe in you,” Joe said. Dantas declined but always appreciated the gesture. Over the years, Joe would call to ask questions about real estate.
“Even though we were decades apart in age, we had a lot of similarities,” Dantas said. They were both into real estate, of course, but they’d also both served in the military – actually, Joe met and married his wife, Ursula, while serving in Germany in the 1950s.
And, jokes Dantas, they both had the car disease – owned a lot of them.
“He was just kind of the picture of the what the American dream was,” Dantas said. He took what he’d been given and “worked his ass off.” Dantas said, despite his significant success, Joe remained humble, “a standup guy.”
Not surprisingly, when Dantas married a few years ago, Joe and Ursula were there.
Joe was also a mentor to a number of people who worked for him over the years. Adam Perry worked for Joe in a variety of capacities for 24 years, starting as a dishwasher at Zenga’s. When Joe learned Perry mowed lawns, suddenly he was mowing lawns at a number of Zenga downtown properties, pushing his mower from lawn to lawn.
“He was a good role model for me and other kids,” Perry said. “He taught us to work hard and stay sharp. He’s somebody I try to emulate.”
After Perry started his own heating business, Joe would hire him to work on the apartments. “There was always something going on,” said Perry. “Joe was a guy you thought would continue on forever. He was strong, a fighter.” Even just two days before he died, drugged up with pain medication, Joe was still talking about the apartments to Perry – ”he was still goal oriented.”
Joe served on a number of boards and committees over his lifetime, including the EG Zoning Board of Review, where he served for a record 26 years. He only stepped down in 2012 after term limits were instituted. Town Councilor Renu Englehart remembers him with fondness.
“I sat on the Zoning Board with him for many years and he was a joy to be around. He was a great mentor and very kind person,” she said. When Englehart decided to run for Town Council in 2018, “Joe was one of the first people I told.”
“I’m not sure it is possible to separate Joe from the town’s history for the second half of the 20th century,” said Town Planner Lisa Bourbonnais. “When I first met him he was still wearing an apron in the family restaurant.”
She said Joe was instrumental in the creation of the Historic District Commission, and he served on that board before switching to the Zoning Board.
“He prided himself on making sure the town’s regulatory environment was user-friendly and he was deeply committed to making sure East Greenwich maintained a reputation for having the highest possible quality of life for all residents,” said Bourbonnais. “Mr. Zenga was an invaluable resource for our department as an armchair local historian. Whenever we were short on details about past activities at a given site or didn’t know how a property came to look the way it did, we could always just call Joe and he would give us the whole backstory. I’m going to miss that.”
Joe’s influence extended well beyond East Greenwich and perhaps was most keenly felt during the 1990-91 state banking crisis.
“Joe was a voice of reason among the depositors during the banking crisis, and Gov. [Bruce] Sundlun, who inherited the disaster from his predecessor, valued his approach,” recalled David Preston, owner of New Harbor Group. Preston served as Sundlun’s communications director during the crisis. “Those were difficult times and many depositors were angry – and rightly so. They had been completely betrayed by state government, and the management at their credit unions.”
Preston said many unrealistic schemes were floated by “various charlatans” and depositors would rally around them. When Sundlun inevitably would say, “No way,” the depositors would be respond angrily.
“But Joe, as a member of their group with a real stake in the outcome, could explain why these were bad ideas and the depositors found him credible,” Preston said.
My husband Neal and I were only Joe and Ursula’s next door neighbors. It was an enduring relationship, even if we didn’t have big roles in each other’s lives.
Sometime, Joe would come over while I was working in the yard and pay me the highest compliment: “You work hard,” he’d say, “like Ursula.” He and Ursula were married for 65 years.
The last few years, the EGFD rescue truck became a frequent presence in front of their Prospect Street home. Joe had developed heart problems. But even if he went into the hospital for a few days, he’d come out and we’d see him driving his white minivan around in no time, checking on apartments, taking Ursula for a spin, getting out and doing, just as he’d always done.
Then there was the time our lives intersected. Three days before Christmas in 2015, I was walking home and saw Ursula sitting in the front of the EGFD rescue truck. “Is it Joe?” I asked. Of course it was. I offered my sympathy and prayers and went home. Meanwhile, Neal, 20 years younger than Joe, ended up in his own Providence rescue truck less than an hour later. They both had had heart attacks and both were treated in the Emergency Department at Rhode Island Hospital, where they both ended up needing cardiac catheterizations at the same time. Joe got there first so he got the cath lab in the ED; Neal was trucked over to the other side of the hospital to another cath lab. It wasn’t until the next day, when I saw Ursula in the cardiac ICU, that we learned of the synchronicity. Small world. Small state. Small town.
Thankfully, both Neal and Joe recovered. It bonded us a little deeper.
The last time I saw Joe, the first or second day of April, he was sitting in the front passenger seat of the white minivan. He waved me over. It was a beautiful spring day and Christine Zenga and her brother David Zenga were taking their parents out for drive. Christine told me later they ended up on the East Side of Providence, eating ice cream.
When I talked to him, Joe’s voice was still strong. He told me he was trying to figure out how he could beat this thing, at least buy some time. After all, he had things to do.
Godspeed, Joe. We were lucky to know you.
*There was a Thorpe’s Pharmacy as well as a liquor store until the 1990s.
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I feel like I knew him, from this story. Thank you, and condolences. These are hard times.
Nice job, Elizabeth…
Well done. Thank you.
Joe was one in 1 million. He was friends with my dad. Joe and I would often reminisce about dad and how things were, back in the day. It was my privilege to call Joe a friend. Rest In Peace my friend. You will be missed.
Nice story, Elizabeth. Thank you.
In the early 1960’s my family moved to East Greenwich. My sister and I were just small children, and coming from a “big” city, my Mom didn’t drive. My dad worked his executive job at Sunoco and was done all day. One of my mom’s saving graces in this little “cowboy” town, as she referred to it, was Joe, the milkman! He’d run over at the drop of a dime, to rescue Mom from any milk emergency she may have had! Thank you Joe for these memories and a million more. May you Rest In Peace.
Beautifully written Elizabeth ❤️
This was so beautiful and great to read‼❣ joe touched many of hearts and i know he touched mine, as being a tentant in one of his apparements❣ I loved talking with him and going by sometimes to visit him and his wife . I always asked if he needed help or if he ever wanted it to give me a call. (Being a CNA) and living close by. He was so stuborn he liked to do it himeself with pride. I will miss him so much❤🙏😇
I had the unique opportunity of helping Mr. Zenga with his properties for the past couple decades. I don’t need to talk about all of his success. That’s well documented. Despite all that success he always treated me as an equal. Always asked my opinion on everything. Which in itself shows what a great man he was. I’m a nobody he was an icon in East Greenwich. Taking care of the properties with him was never work. It was two friends hanging out. He was always there for me despite how busy he was. An example of that is a couple years back I fell ill. Despite his own health issues he was there for me the whole time. To the point where when I woke up in ICU there he was sitting beside me.For all he taught me about property management the greatest thing he taught me was how to be a better man. I will always miss him.To me he was a rockstar. Thank you Mr. Zenga for everything. I love you.
Thanks for sharing, Matt.
My wife Dale and I had the privilege of attending Joe’s 80th birthday party. It was a large gathering at the German Club in Pawtucket. When the time came, Joe took the microphone and introduced each and every person in attendance and told a brief story about each of one. It was a remarkable moment. Joe was a remarkable person, with remarkable intellect and passion for life. He drew great joy in celebrating others. Joe Zenga leaves an indelible mark on East Greenwich and we are better because of it. I love and miss you Cuz.
I never got the chance to thank you Dr. Brennan. Mr. Zenga brought me to you a couple of years ago and you saved my life. Just wanted you I’m grateful for everything you did.
Joe Zenga was one of the best. He was always ready and willing to help someone whether he knew that person or not. Rest in peace, Joe.
Liz, your family was blessed to have the Zengas for neighbors. Wonderful tribute
We were, Judy. Thanks for commenting!
Joe Zenga (known to me as Uncle Joe Joe) was a larger than life character to me and my sisters. From the time I was little guy watching him, my Grandfather, and my late Uncle Bobby working the kitchen at Zenga’s Restaurant to the time Uncle Joe did a ride-along with me when I was a police officer in VA, he was always full of conversation, wisdom, and humor. Godspeed Uncle Joe. We’ll miss you.
Nicely done Liz. You’ve really added a layer of fabric to the story of East Greenwich and the legacy of Joe Zenga’s imprint. The narrative of his life so well states a deep sense of community and pride. Condolences to the family. May his memory be lasting.
Thanks Liz for all your great work…always…but today, what a wonderful job particularly with your ode to your neighbor and friend, Joe Zenga.
I didn’t know him well, and I doubt very much he would have ever remembered me. I was a dishwasher in my teens, for a brief period, at Zengas Restaurant on Main Street. They were good to me there. I smelled like chicken parm and lasagna going home every night, but loved it actually. Hard work, very little pay, and it’s for me one of those first-jobs I’ll never forget.
I went on to a ‘bigger and better’ opportunity not long after, at least I thought so—as a busboy at Rocky Point’s Shore Dinner Hall, where I’d now come home smelling like greasy clam cakes. My pay was $5/hour at Rocky Point, instead of minimum wage at $3/hour or so, and, at Rocky Point I even earned an extra $30 a week in tips!
A very good friend of mine also worked for the Zengas, on their ‘Roberto’s pizza truck stationed in Goddard Park all summer. He had the life of Riley, selling pizza, doughboys, and sodas at the very busy park, making a ton in tips and talking to pretty girls all day. We were all fairly envious, the same way we’d be jealous of friends later in our college years who were able to secure interesting bartending jobs up in Boston. Anyway, he enjoyed his own teenage gig working for the Zengas as well.
(I’m sure you know, their tiny pizza joint ‘Roberto’s’ was in the old Fat Belly’s location on Ives Road. Or, more accurately, Fat Belly’s opened up where Roberto’s Pizza used to be!)
Joe was, in my experience, all of those things you and Greg and everyone noted. Fair to all of us. Good businessman. A driver, but a good leader, especially with his younger staff, who anyone in the restaurant business will tell you takes a special degree of skill and patience. He was a gentleman, a town treasure for decades, a good man. God bless him, always.