-By John Lynds
Jerry Zullo, a longtime businessman who owned several restaurants in East Boston for nearly a half a century, died on Saturday, February 5 following complication from pneumonia at the Kaplan Family Hospice in Danvers.
Mr. Zullo was born and raised in Chelsea and attended schools there until the eighth grade. Mr. Zullo was forced to leave school in the 1940s at a very young age to help his mother and father support the growing family that included 11 brothers and sisters.
“Times where tough back then and he worked from the minute he could to help bring money home to the family,” said his daughter Donna Zullo Marquardo of Donna’s Restaurant in Orient Heights Square.
It was while working these odd jobs, like shinning shoes, that Mr. Zullo was able to save up enough money to buy the first in a string of successful family businesses.
Short of his sixteenth birthday, Mr. Zullo opened Fields Cleaners in Charlestown where he secured the contract to do all the laundry for the U.S. Navy stationed at the busy Charlestown Navy Yard.
It was shortly after opening the business that Mr. Zullo met his future wife Loretta Caruana of Medford. The two were married in 1952 and moved to East Boston, first living on Beachview Road and later on Montmorenci before moving to Lynnfield and Revere.
It was in East Boston where Mr. Zullo became a well-known restaurateur first opening Prime Donuts in Orient Heights Square (now occupied by Milano’s), then Donna’s Spa (now a nail salon), Donna’s Italian Kitchen and later Mr. Z’s around the corner which is now occupied by El Paisa Butchery.
“His whole life was spent in the square,” said Marquardo.
He then opened Blazing Saddles, a BBQ joint that was a popular spot in the neighborhood for several years until Mr. Zullo sold it after the death of his son Michael in 1986. After Mr. Zullo sold the restaurant the new owners suffered a fire that gutted the old building a few years later.
After the fire Mr. Zullo bought the land and rebuilt from the ground up the now very popular breakfast spot, Donna’s Restaurant.
“He was here every day,” said Marquardo. “He cooked, he cleaned, he waited on customers, he did everything and loved every minute of it.”
For the past 19 years the tall, slender, white haired Zullo could be seen early every morning working the grill and tending to customers.
“He loved it because the whole family was there,” said Marquardo. “His kids, his grandkids, we all worked there.”
It was this closeness that gave Donna’s the authentic family run feel.
“We didn’t just work together, we did everything together,” said Marquardo. “When we would close for vacation he’d take everyone on cruises or rent buses to take the whole family down to Foxwoods.”
But Zullo’s generosity did not end at his family.
“If someone came in and could not pay, my father would feed them and help them out in any way he could,” said Marquardo. “He remembered how tough his upbringing was and just because he was successful he never forgot where he came from. He would give the shirt off his back if he thought someone needed it.”
Mr. Zullo was known as ‘Papa’ to the loyal customers at Donna’s that came in each morning for breakfast and lunch.
“He also sponsored youth sports teams and donated to the local schools,” said Marquardo. “He was very connected to the East Boston community.”
On the day he died, Marquardo said the entire family, including Mr. Zullo’s grandchildren, where able to spend one last night together, as they did everyday for the past two decades.
“He had a suite at the Hospice,” said Marquardo. “So we all slept there so we could be with him when he took his last breath.”
Then at 11:33, according to Marquardo, Mr. Zullo stopped breathing and his pulse weakened. Marquardo went to call for a nurse but before Marquardo could deliver the sad news that her father had expired something miraculous had occurred.
“Six minutes later he began breathing again and his pulse came back,” said Marquardo. “He held on for another two hours. I don’t think he was ready to say goodbye to us.”