On a quiet, two-lane road that connects the former railroad town of Altoona to State College, you smell the pasta sauce before you spot the rides, the pizza, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
You smell the sauce before you enter the factory offices of DelGrosso Foods. Before you find Joe DelGrosso, chief of the family sauce business, at a conference table in black slacks. Before he tells you that they don’t call it “gravy” in these parts. Before you persuade Joe to roll up those pants and wade into his Italian-themed water park next door for a picture in front of a water-spouting Pisa.
You are disoriented. It smells and sounds like Marra’s or Ralph’s in South Philly, but instead of seeing rowhouses, you’re in the wide-open belly of central Pennsylvania. There’s a squat gravy factory along the road, accordion music in the air, and a lush mountain ridge along Pleasant Valley Boulevard in this place the post office calls Tipton, Pa.
Your feet hit the ground near an old-timey Tilt-a-Whirl and a roller coaster called Crazy Mouse. It’s the tree-shaded section of DelGrosso’s Park where the family was raised in a kitchen-less cottage 60 years ago.
You cross a pedestrian bridge over the street and enter a Vegas-Venetian-worthy Laguna Splash aqua kingdom. Giant Italian urn replicas and a cheeky “Rome” street sign are just part of the charm. Hungry for a snack? Try some pasta with white or red sauce. Or a Philly cheesesteak inspired by Tony Luke’s.
None of this, you realize, makes much sense.
All of it, you then realize, makes perfect sense.
DelGrosso’s isn’t just an amusement park with a sauce business connected to supermarkets in all 50 states. It isn’t just the country’s only Italian-themed water park. It is America at its greatest, immigrant-fueled glory.
This is what you end up with after American industry folds in former steel and railroad towns like Altoona and Johnstown: a third-generation Italian American family doubling down on a region otherwise abandoned by the titans of U.S. manufacturing.
The heroes up here near the famous fly-fishing spots of Blair and Centre Counties are the DelGrossos themselves, whose immigrant ancestors were drawn to the region for its railroad jobs a century ago. The third generation now helps form the backbone of the economy that remains.
The rides and water park? Call them a family addiction — one that conveniently feeds the whole region with joy.
“I always joke, ‘I’d rather sell the sauce business before the amusement park,’ ” said Bo DelGrosso, one of the seven brothers and sisters raised in a single house on park grounds in the 1950s. “Because the family wouldn’t have a place to hang out.”
The locals say the best jobs around here anymore are in prisons, with the Sheetz convenience-store chain, or health care.
Oh — and DelGrosso’s.
“My parents worked for them and my grandparents worked for them,” Kim Gurekovich, the borough hall receptionist up the road in Tyrone, told me. “And I’m 49.”
It’s no accident that DelGrosso’s is one of just three remaining family-owned amusement parks in Pennsylvania. Joe and Bo are among the kids of late founders Fred and Murf DelGrosso who’ve kept the sauce business going — and made a concerted effort to keep the amusements business simmering, too.
It’s taken some serious denaro, as they say in the Old Country, to expand from a quaint, country-vibe Ferris-wheel-and-water-slide spot into the statewide summer destination it has become in the last two years.
It cost $13 million to design, build, and open the Italian-themed water park in 2016 — way more than they’d ever expected to spend.
They did it, Joe explained, “because of one thing: What did we grow up with?”
Rides, of course.
Their dad bought the old recreation spot in the late 1940s without telling their mother. The family soon crammed into a house on the grounds and lived there. In the ’50s and ’60s, Dad would walk around the park pulling free tickets out of his pocket for locals he knew didn’t have money to put their kids on the Ferris wheel.
“Just so happened to start a sauce business,” Joe added, “out of an amusement park.”
It’s hard not to fall in love with this place.
They say a big city like Philadelphia is a good place to live because there are better jobs, bigger sports teams, more opportunity for your kids.
But there’s no place like DelGrosso’s. And that makes the three-hour ride northwest of Philadelphia worth the drive.
It is homespun and locally owned, just like Knoebels amusement park in Northumberland County, north of Harrisburg. Admission is free, so you pay for rides as you go on them or buy a day pass. On Spaghetti Wednesdays, family members help make enough pasta and special entrees for what’s become a local draw: $8.50 meals until they sell out.
You’d think a guy like Joe, in charge of the huge sauce division, wouldn’t bother with that. But he and his five other siblings (one sister has died) are driven by more than just dollars and cents.
“My father believed in, he always said, ‘the little guy,’ ” Joe DelGrosso told me.
Their roots were in a little cafe in Altoona, one started by Joe’s grandmother. His grandfather was a boilermaker with the railroads. His dad, Fred, expanded the cafe in Little Italy, and then had the crazy idea to buy the old Bland’s Park for access to bigger cooking facilities. It just so happened to have picnic pavilions, a carousel, and a bowling alley, too.
“I’d say my dad was a big risk-taker,” he said.
The whole family, including Joe’s cousin Carl Crider Jr., lived at the park back then. Today, Carl runs the amusements division.
Like so much in life, you could talk in romantic terms about the family’s business smarts, their well-known charitable work in the area, and the good amount of hard work and luck that has gone into their success.
But they’re the last ones to ever cop to any of that. To the boys and girls raised on this park and who refuse to shut it down, this little Pennsylvania wonderland is about something a lot more basic and human.
“We’re just a family-owned park,” Joe said, “and we love good food.”