Remembering The Club Car’s Joe Pantorno.
In some salty circles, they called him “Bone Fish Joe.” He was absolutely lethal with a fly rod, earning himself a reputation for pulling trophy catches from skinny waters. He lived a life of adventure, ever ready to drop everything to hop on a seaplane destined for some undisclosed atoll where the fish were said to be biting. He was a gifted storyteller, a cancer survivor and a swashbuckling sportsman. He was well-read, well-traveled and greatly well-liked by celebrities and dishwashers alike. But when it comes to his beloved Nantucket, Joe Pantorno will forever be the restaurateur extraordinaire, one of the island’s true originals who always remembered your name and what you were drinking.
Pantorno passed away suddenly in February at the age of sixty-eight. His death came two years after he overcame throat cancer and sold his beloved Club Car Restaurant, which had been more than four decades in his care. Two weeks before his death, his doctors gave him the “I-don’t-want-to-see-you-for-another-year” cancer clearance.
Apart from some consulting he was doing off island, Pantorno had slipped into a welcomed retirement. He was planning on purchasing a property in Sedona, Arizona, where he could spend his winter months in the dry heat honing his latest obsession: golf. His summers remained on Nantucket, fishing in the morning, playing at Skinner’s in the afternoon and sipping on Yuengling Lager and a shot of Patrón at the Chicken Box before dinner. But just after Valentine’s Day, a heart attack ended his life in Hypoluxo, Florida, leaving legions of friends and family reeling from the loss.
Pantorno grew up on Long Island where his father got him and his brother hooked on fishing. They went out every weekend, plying the waters of Long Island Sound and often sleeping aboard their boat. Pantorno and his brother eventually started a clamming business in high school. When it came time for college, he traded his fishing rod for a lacrosse stick and earned a full scholarship playing midfield for the UConn Huskies. He was accepted into dental school after graduation but postponed his enrollment to work on a commercial salmon fishing boat off the coast of Alaska. Suffice it to say, the dental school is still awaiting his return.
“I met him in Stratton, Vermont, in 1973,” remembers Michael O’Mara, who was building houses up north at the time. “He was working at the Winhall River Yacht Club, this après-ski bar off the mountain.” After the two became quick friends, O’Mara asked Pantorno if he’d ever been to Nantucket. “I told him he’d have the time of his life there,” O’Mara recalls, “and I was right … Joe never left.”
Pantorno’s first job on the island was in the mid-seventies at Preston’s Airport Lounge, an old hotspot where locals shot pool and listened to live music. Meanwhile, O’Mara banged nails and bartended on the island. When legendary developer Walter Beinecke approached O’Mara about needing someone to run his struggling restaurant, the Harbor House, Pantorno’s name came up. Joined by Chef Michael Shannon, Pantorno and O’Mara turned the Harbor House around. Their recipe for success was then sprinkled onto two other of Beinecke’s downtown restaurants: The Rope Walk and The Club Car, where they made the piano bar really sing.
While O’Mara moved on from The Club Car three years later and Shannon a few decades after that, Pantorno stayed onboard for the long haul. “He was in the restaurant business for forty years,” O’Mara says, “which is like sixty years in any other business.” Over that time, O’Mara said Pantorno employed around two thousand people on the island, many of whom would go on to have their own careers in the island’s restaurant scene. “He will forever be my first boss in the industry,” says Orla Murphy-LaScola, who went from working as a cocktail waitress at The Club Car to later owning and operating American Seasons and then Proprietors with her husband Michael. “I will never pop a bottle of bubbles without thinking of him,” she says. “Joe is a testament to living life to its very fullest with only the people who truly appreciate you by your side.”
At the helm of The Club Car, Pantorno was the consummate host. He had a gift for remembering people’s names and faces. “He developed a great sense of hospitality that worked from the top down, through his employees who he treated great,” says Jim Annese, who helped manage the restaurant until Pantorno retired in 2017. “He knew how to work a room, always making people feel welcome and at home.” Paul Schaffer worked alongside Pantorno as The Club Car’s maître d’ for six years. “In those six years, I think I dined with him a thousand times,” Schaffer says. “And over those thousand dinners, I don’t remember him repeating a single story—and the stories coming out of his mouth were always unbelievable.”
One of the earliest tales Schaffer remembers Pantorno telling was of an early winter in Aspen where he worked seasonally for four decades. After bartending the evening shift, Pantorno went to another after-hours bar where a man was strumming an acoustic guitar and singing. The musician eventually struck up a conversation with Pantorno, asking, “Do you know how to fly fish?” Pantorno nodded and said if the musician wanted to learn, he’d be happy to introduce him to the master caster who taught him. The very next morning, the two men found themselves wading into Colorado’s Frying Pan River with Pantorno’s trusty guide by their side. The musician turned out to be Jimmy Buffett.
“That’s how they met forty plus years ago,” Schaffer says. “They remained fast friends forever.” Buffett dined at least twice a summer at The Club Car, putting his reservation under the name “Av Ocado.” They were lifelong fishing buddies, traveling around the world in search of the ultimate catch. So when he wasn’t floating around The Club Car’s classic dining room, Pantorno was most readily found floating across the sandbars around Tuckernuck and Muskeget.
Though he grew up a spin fisherman on Long Island, after he learned to cast a fly in the streams of Colorado, Pantorno gave away all of his traditional rods and reels and specialized in sight-fishing, standing on the end of a small, shallow-water skiff waiting for a shadow of a striper or bonefish to slink into the sandy flats. Once the fish was in his range, Pantorno would begin working the weighted line of his fly rod through the air, until he had the right distance to present the fly to the unsuspecting fish—like shooting an arrow at a moving bull’s-eye. Pantorno became revered as one of the greatest fly casters in New England, a legend that began when he landed a world-record bonefish in the 1970s. With his friend and longtime fishing partner, Paul Bruno, Pantorno chased the most elusive fish in what many fishermen regarded as the purest form of the hunt.
Pantorno lived much like he fished—quietly. He never boasted about the many celebrities he kept in his company. He never uttered a word about the countless donations he made to local nonprofits. He only told his family about his fight with cancer after he’d already beaten it. Whether on the water or behind the bar, those who came into his orbit remember Pantorno’s warmth, charm and the unquestionable zeal he brought to each day. “He was completely present in every aspect of his life,” says his niece Lauren McKenna, who regularly spent summers with her favorite “Uncle Joey” on the island. “Whether he was with his family, or fishing, or at the restaurant, or enjoying a great bottle of wine—he lived in the present.” As his many friends prepare to honor his life at a ceremony on the island this June, Joe Pantorno’s many tales continue to be told, keeping him hooked into the island he loved.