From the age of five, Pete Napolitano has known produce.
After World War II, his father emigrated from Italy to New Jersey and began peddling fresh fruits and vegetables door to door. The younger Napolitano and his brother would eventually accompany their father, gathering knowledge that would last a lifetime.
His family’s store, Napolitano’s Produce in Bergenfield, opened in 1959 and offered customers fresh produce. Napolitano and his family lived upstairs. After high school, Napolitano worked the family business for almost three decades until the shop closed in 2006.
“Through hard work and determination, we achieved the American dream,” he says. “I’m very proud of what my family accomplished.”
For 30 years, Napolitano has been better known as Produce Pete, thanks to his NBC Weekend Today segment. Every week, viewers look to Produce Pete for tips on fruits, veggies and recipes. He also contributes a regular online column to New Jersey Monthly.
This month, Napolitano released his autobiography, They Call Me Produce Pete. Written with Susan Bloom, a local writer and longtime contributor to New Jersey Monthly, the book moves away from Napolitano’s typical produce-related content and instead focuses on personal stories from his life. Napolitano is personally autographing copies ordered from his website.
“I’m a Jersey boy,” says Napolitano, who still resides in the Garden State. “The most interesting things about me have always been my stories.”
How has the produce industry changed over the years?
Pete Napolitano: When we first opened our stores, women would come maybe two or three times a day. It was back when men were working and women were home. As women began getting into the workforce, we had to adjust. People knew how to pick tomatoes and apples and all that, but as time went on, a different group of people began coming into the market who had less experience shopping and cooking.
Any standout lessons from your dad?
Sure. My father taught me if the farmers are gone, so is your business. Even though Jersey has fewer farms now, we still need them to be able to grow everything.
How did you get started at NBC?
In the 1980s, a woman came to my store and saw me chatting with a customer and explaining something about the product. She stood around for a while, told me what she heard was very interesting, and wanted me to come on Channel 9 for a short segment. I told her no, because I was so busy, but two or three months later she called again. I said no again, but my wife said yes. She knew it would be a great opportunity. In 1992, I went to NBC. I do a three-to-five-minute segment every Saturday.
What made you want to write a book?
My television segment evolved over the years, from Pete Your Produce Pal to Produce Pete. I’ve evolved so much over the years. A lot of [the book] is about my life and my longevity in the business. I worked with Susan Bloom, who did all the writing and worked so hard. Doing this with her was the most important thing to me. Sometimes I think Susan knows more about my life than I do!
What do you love about being in Jersey?
I love Jersey. In the summer we do the show on Saturdays and then hit all these farm stands and markets nearby. People always ask me to go and appear, and I love answering questions and talking to people about produce. It is really so rewarding.
Do you have a favorite Garden State produce?
My favorite would be tomatoes because, of course, Jersey grows them best. Next would be Jersey corn, because it is the best in the world. My father always told me when I was a little boy, “The less something travels, the better it is.” Items that I can get from Jersey and into stores within days are the best.
What do you hope your book brings to people?
I come from an immigrant family that didn’t have any money, but there was always food on the table. I come from a huge family, and family was always around. My family succeeded, but it didn’t come easy. We worked hard, and all of that is in the book. I’m very proud.
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