BRANFORD — Here’s an enigma: An Ecuadorean with a decided flair for Italian cooking.
But that pretty much describes Juan J. “JJ” Rubio, the new owner of Genaros Pizza & Italian Restaurant in the Branford’s Short Beach enclave. Rubio is marking the fall season with a slate of daily specials (see below), as a way to re-introduce Genaros to the neighborhood.
The charismatic 31-year-old grew up in the one-stoplight village of Sucua in southern Ecuador, amid orchid farms, wooded paths through the subtropical forest, and market on Sundays.
Early on, he took to cooking. Specifically, soupy rice, a thick and comforting dish that’s somewhat similar to gumbo.
“My mom, my grandmother, they were always encouraging me,” said Rubio on a recent afternoon as the garlicky aroma of Pasta Fagioli wafted from the kitchen into the bright, pocket-sized space next to the Short Beach post office.
On trips to the U.S. to visit relatives in East Haven, dinners at the celebrated North Branford restaurant Dalton’s and Ludal’s in North Haven enlivened his taste buds — and his imagination about the possibilities of Italian cuisine.
“This was what I wanted to do,” he said. “Make great food to make people happy.”
Rubio enrolled in culinary school. He thrived there. But there was also, as he put it, “always a business side, from my father,” the owner of a car dealership and a bank manager, an interest in “numbers, and process, about how things work, and how to make things work.”
So he studied business as well, eventually earning his degree from Pacific University business school in Cuenca.
In the midst of his studies, Rubio won an internship in the coveted year-long Disney College Program. There, he concentrated in both merchandise and food service while absorbing, he said, “Disney’s hospitality culture.”
A few years later, he opened his first ChocoBerry in Sucua, which offers a wide array of frozen yogurt, as well as fresh fruit and shakes. He’s since opened another, which he oversees remotely from the U.S.
The reason for its popularity is “freshness,” Rubio said. “It’s key for everything. Fresh local yogurt, milk, locally farmed, local distributors.”
That same impulse animates his mission for Genaros, which he bought from its previous owners in March 2018 on the strength of an E2 Visa which, “enables individuals who have significant funds to invest to come into the U.S. for the purpose of setting up a business,” as onlinevisas.com states.
“We instantly fell in love with Short Beach,” said Rubio, who credited his wife, Marianella Orellana, for helping him realize his dream. “It’s like a village, with the people so friendly and encouraging, and the neighborhood so tight-knit. I saw possibility.”
Possibility, to be specific, not only to create jobs — he currently has four employees — but also to feed his passion for cooking and business, as well as to afford the same emphasis on the local.
“The chicken we get has no antibiotics and it’s hormone-free,” said Rubio, who designed the menus and opened up the space with his own remodel. “We have house-made eggplant, which is very popular. We make our own lasagna, our own marinara sauce, in house. Everything is from scratch.”
Added to all that are the individual touches Rubio has included in response to his customers’ requests: the gluten-free options; the liquor license, and the daily specials that he’s introducing this month.
Count Short Beach denizen Shelly Johnson, who was sampling a slice of white garlic pizza at one of the outside tables, a fan.
“The pizza is out of this world,” she said, describing it as less charred than New Haven-style and less thin-crusted than New York. “But it’s not just a pizza joint. JJ can do Penne a la Vodka, he can do Chicken Piccata, and his housemade lasagna is to die for.”
Kathryn Malerba, who was stopping in to pick up an order of Caprese salad, Sausage Parmigiana grinders, and Lobster Ravioli for a family dinner, agreed.
“Everything is wholesome and delicious,” she said. “The apps, the soups, the salads, the dinners, everything.”
She then shook her head. “I’m as Italian as they come and it’s unbelievable to me that JJ didn’t grow up with an Italian nonna.”
Genaros is on 126 Shore Drive in Branford. For information or delivery, visit www.genarosrestaurantct.com or call 203-208-0629 or 203-208-2172.
Daily specials include Monday $15 Seafood Night, Tuesday $10 Pasta Night, Wednesday $12 Parmigiana Night, Thursday half price on a bottle of wine night, and Friday 20 percent off on appetizers.