Joseph J. Drago, 81, ran popular Edgewood restaurant for 26 years

May 05, 1999|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Joseph J. Drago, the retired proprietor of a popular Edgewood restaurant, died Saturday in his sleep at Mariner Health of Bel Air. He was 81 and lived in Edgewood.

For 26 years, he owned and operated Drago's Spaghetti House, a U.S. 40 bar and dining room that beckoned patrons with the slogan "Always a friendly welcome." The restaurant featured a $1 spaghetti and meatball dinner from the late 1940s to 1950s -- served on tables with red-checkered cloths and bottles of Chianti.

"Everything was so generous there," said Mary Jo Pons of Country Life Farm in Bel Air. "My husband, Joe, and I went there for lunch once a week. The owners were fine people, and I can still recall the antipasto."

Born in Baltimore, Mr. Drago grew up on Durham Street and, at age 10, began saving to attend Mount St. Joseph High School by selling 2-cent newspapers on street corners and to streetcar passengers. He also went door to door in downtown offices selling magazine subscriptions.

"He caught the crowds coming out of the Hippodrome Theater," said his wife, the former Sara Nicolette. "His father used to hand him a transfer out the window of a streetcar, so he'd ride free and sell papers to the riders."

When the United States entered World War II, Mr. Drago immediately enlisted and served in the South Pacific with the 78th Navy Seabees, building airport runways.

In 1948, he bought and refurbished a 100-seat restaurant on U.S. 40 near Edgewood Road. It featured a wooden sign that told travelers and the local trade that it was a "spaghetti house." He decorated its walls with pictures of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and scenes from the Mediterranean coast.

Mr. Drago acted as greeter and bartender while his wife presided over the kitchen. They courted a family trade and repeat customers. The menu featured homemade spaghetti sauce, meatballs and lasagna, with pork chops, seafood and steaks.

"The local people used to come to us with their children," Mrs. Drago said. "The GIs from Edgewood and Aberdeen liked us too, because they said it reminded them of their home."

In the 1950s, the restaurant became the unofficial meeting place of the Enlisted Special Chemical Engineers Club based at the Army's Chemical Warfare Center at Edgewood. Forty years later, the Dragos were receiving Christmas cards from its members.

When Interstate 95 opened through Harford County, Mr. Drago feared that patronage would fall off.

"There was a little dip -- maybe for a month or so -- but gradually business returned to normal," Mrs. Drago said.

In 1974, when Mr. Drago was 56, he decided to sell the business and retire. "My husband said he had worked enough 16-hour days and seven-day weeks," said Mrs. Drago.

He puttered around his garden, traveled and followed the Orioles.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered today at 9: 30 a.m. at St. Dominic Roman Catholic Church, 5310 Harford Road.

He is also survived by his sons, Stephan J. Drago of Durham, N.C., and Michael L. Drago of Reading, Pa.; a daughter, Joyce L. Gould of Baltimore; a sister, Marie Miller of Smiths Grove, N.Y.; and four grandchildren.

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