Longtime teacher, onetime owner of Joseph’s Pizzeria recalled fondly
For nearly four decades, John Koutrobis spent the school year in front of a classroom as a teacher in the Boston Public Schools, and then spent all summer behind the counter at Joseph’s Pizzeria on Nantasket Beach.
Putting in long days, he did everything from preparing food in the kitchen and brainstorming improvements for the shop to training new employees and greeting customers in the dining room. As he often reminded his four children, he began by working in the family business and hadn’t had a summer off since he was 14 years old.
But he wasn’t complaining. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Mr. Koutrobis, who owned Joseph’s with his wife, Sofia, for 38 years, died on March 13 at the age of 69.
Although Joseph’s disappeared from the landscape in 2019 as part of the redevelopment of the Paragon Boardwalk property, Mr. Koutrobis was a familiar face to many in Hull. As a teenager, he worked with his parents, Christos and Pota Koutrobis, at The Breakers restaurant starting in 1966 and spent the next 55 summers at Nantasket, Sofia Koutrobis recalled last week. The Breakers was a sit-down restaurant next door to Joseph’s; it is now the main dining room of Dalat. (The bar area of Dalat was Lahage’s salt water taffy stand.)
“John was working with his dad at the Breakers,” she said, noting that her husband liked to think of new ideas to grow the business. “He wanted to add pizza to the menu, and Chris didn’t really want to do that.”
When the opportunity to venture out on his own came up in 1980, Mr. Koutrobis jumped at it, taking over the venerable Joseph’s Pizzeria next door at 183A Nantasket Ave. The restaurant had long roots in town and previously had been located at the main entrance to Paragon Park.
Sofia Koutrobis joined him in the business the following year, beginning a partnership of 40-plus years that would come to include four children of their own and hundreds of others they “adopted” as employees during nearly four decades.
“Over the years, we had children whose parents worked at Joseph’s come in when they were 14 and ask if they could work there, too,” said their daughter, Katerina DiCristofalo. “My dad loved the idea of having families stay with us. He loved the idea of teaching kids about having a work ethic.”
As news of Mr. Koutrobis’ death reached former employees – some of whom had formed a Facebook group to stay in touch and organize summer reunions – many remembered him as a kind man who expected them to work at least as hard as he did.
“John was a great boss, friend, and family man. He dedicated his life to teaching kids, whether it was in the classroom or at the restaurant,” recalled Rick Sacco, who grew up in Hull and remained friendly with the Koutrobis family in the decades since. “This man gave me my first summer job as a 15-year-old kid who knew nothing about having a full-time job. He took a chance on me, and I am forever grateful for that opportunity. I worked at Joseph’s for five summers and gained a second family.”
“We had many siblings who worked for us over years,” Sofia Koutrobis said. “We even had some kids who stayed 10 years. The only thing I regret is that we didn’t do a yearbook every year so we could remember all the kids.”
Mr. Koutrobis’ “other job” as a teacher helped him connect with the employees at Joseph’s, many of whom started as young as he had in the business.
He grew up in Lowell and attended Deree – The American College of Greece, where he earned a degree in psychology, and served as a reservist at the U.S. Air Force Base in Athens. Proud of his Greek heritage, he later obtained his master’s degree and spent 34 years in the Boston Public Schools, first in the Greek bilingual program and then as special education teacher in third-, fourth-, and fifth-grades. He taught in West Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and South Boston before retiring in 2010.
Mr. Koutrobis inspired many with his enthusiasm and determination to not let an illness – he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 30 – prevent him from achieving his goals. Despite treatment that required hospital stays and the use of a wheelchair as he got older, Mr. Koutrobis remained committed to the business he and his family had built.
“Even with his disease, he had more energy than I did,” his wife recalled with a laugh, noting that her husband was older than she. “I would ask him, ‘How do you have this much energy?’ He just didn’t want to retire from Joseph’s. He enjoyed each and every day there.”
In the early years of their ownership, with Paragon in full swing, Joseph’s employed more than 50 kids each summer, Sofia Koutrobis said, adding that the weekly work schedule posted in the back room could run four pages or longer.
Paragon Park’s closure was announced in January 1985, only a few months after the couple had purchased a home in Norwell, adding a layer of uncertainty to their plans.
“I saw the story in The Patriot Ledger and thought, ‘How are we going to pay our mortgage now?’” she remembers.
After the park closed, business slowed, and the number of employees dropped by about half. When their landlord decided to sell the Joseph’s building, putting the future of the business further in doubt, the couple looked across the street at the abandoned concession space at the Bernie King Pavilion.
Soon, Pizzeria Sofia opened, adding beach food staples like ice cream to the traditional pizza menu, complementing Joseph’s, which won a new lease on life with a new landlord. John Koutrobis’ father, who had closed The Breakers, helped with the flourishing second location at the pavilion during its 10 years in operation.
Although they enjoyed running the business, it was demanding. Holidays were regular work days. They took no summer vacations as did other families of teachers.
“That was the toughest job I ever had,” his daughter recalled.
Still, when the couple – John much more reluctantly than Sofia – decided it was time to retire in 2019, Mr. Koutrobis immediately developed second thoughts.
“Afterward, when we went down there, he’d say, ‘Maybe we should have kept it another year,’” his daughter said. “He really didn’t want to retire.”
After moving the pizza ovens to another section of the Paragon Boardwalk complex and sharing their recipes with owner Chris Reale, who incorporated Joseph’s pizza into the menu of the remaining food stand, Sofia Koutrobis said she and her husband spent their free time in a familiar place – at the beach.
“It was the first time I ever got a tan in the summer,” she said.
With no public memorial services due to the pandemic restrictions, his family decided to ask for donations to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in Mr. Koutrobis’ name to help advance research and treatment of the disease.
“John was an incredible man and such an inspiration to us all. I will never forget our summers spent together at Joseph’s,” former employee Katie Valencius wrote on the MS Society’s tribute page to Mr. Koutrobis. “Even though I could never live up to his pizza-making standards, John never failed to make me laugh. He will always hold a special place in my heart, and I will forever remember his smile and kindness.”
Nicholas Tsekeris classified his donation to the MS Society as “the least I could do for the person that has and will inspire me for years to come.”
“John was a shining light,” recalled Joseph’s employee Laura Brennan. “My memories of every summer making pizza side by side with him will live on with me forever. His genuine care and love for life and family shaped me and how I live my life.”
In addition to winning over its employees, Joseph’s had a profound impact on its customers. Many came back year after year, or traveled long distances, for a slice of Joseph’s pizza or other specialties on the menu.
One regular customer, in labor and on her way to the hospital, instructed her husband to stop the car in front of Joseph’s and rush inside for an order of fried dough, Sofia Koutrobis recalled.
Another time, she greeted a pregnant customer at an inside table who casually remarked that she was having contractions but wanted to finish her pizza before heading into the maternity ward.
“I told her, ‘John will have a heart attack if you give birth right here in the dining room!’” she said.
The nostalgia felt by so many for Mr. Koutrobis and Joseph’s led to an outpouring of support for the MS Society.
“We said we’d be happy if we raised around $500,” his daughter said.
The family was astonished to discover that in the span of only a few days, friends, family members, former students and colleagues, and legions of Joseph’s customers and employees contributed more than $10,000 to honor his memory.
“He had no idea how much of an impact he had on so many people,” Sofia Koutrobis said. “Whether it was kids in school, or kids at Joseph’s, he was forever a teacher.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Koutrobis is survived by three daughters: Panagiota and her husband, Antonios Athinelis, of Medford; Katerina and her husband, Justin DiCristofalo, of Quincy; Christina and her husband, Michael Regan, of Duxbury; and one son, Christos, and his girlfriend, Kerry, of Boston. He also is survived by his mother, Pota; his sister Valerie Murphy and her husband, Terry, and their daughters, of Chelmsford; his brother-in-law, Ernie Drougas, and his sons, of Bourne; and many cousins.
He also is survived by his 2-year-old namesake grandson, John Joseph DiCristofalo, whom Sofia Koutrobis described as “the light of John’s life.”
“He made him smile every day,” she said of their grandson.
In recognition of his Hellenic roots, Mr. Koutrobis’s obituary noted that he was surrounded in life by many koumparoi – a term in Greek culture that refers to a collection of close friends who are treated like family. And in a serendipitous nod to that heritage, the publication date of this tribute – March 25 – is Greek Independence Day.
“John would love that,” his wife said. “He really would.”
Donations in Mr. Koutrobis’s memory can be made to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society at https://mssociety.donordrive.com/campaign/johnkoutrobis.