A half-cracked smile curls underneath his wiry handlebar mustache suggesting he has something up his sleeve.
With Joe Di Vito, that means he’s thinking of a joke or a bizarre story, something to draw people in to his humble stand at the Union Street Farmers Market in downtown Gainesville.
His brown eyes bounce from face to face underneath a dark olive fedora that covers his shoulder length grey hair. There’s a peculiar magic to them that captivates patrons walking among tents filled with fresh-baked pastries and ripe fruit stands at the market. They take one look at Joe, with his white-frosted muttonchops and icicle goatee, and they usually shuffle over to see what the mystical man has to offer.
Here, though, Joe’s alter ego takes over, and he becomes The Wizard of Odd, a sunny, funny and punny man who sells homemade hot sauces.
“Wizard of Odd Hot Sauces,” Joe says to the crowd. “We got everything from mild to wild here.”
He turns his head to a couple of college students walking close by.
“You got a smile on your face. Let’s make it bigger.”
At the farmer’s market, Joe Di Vito’s stand is hot. Every Wednesday, he consistently draws in crowds of people with his quirky one-liners and free hot sauce samples. Wizard of Odd Hot Sauces is a local business based out of Lacrosse, Florida. Like a carnival act, Joe takes his business to various locations across North Central Florida where he sets up a stand and tries to talk with everyone about one of his favorite subjects: hot sauces.
“Got amazing hot sauces here that’ll put hair on your head or rip it off your chest,” he says, joking.
“Another one of my favorite lines is: sweet and hot just like you.”
Let’s just say, he likes to keep things fun.
“Grab a cracker,” he says to a young man walking by. “Everything I have here is socially acceptable.”
As the guy walks over, Joe grabs a bottle of his Van Helsing’s Vampire Elixir sauce, a mild datil pepper and garlic concoction. The man picks up a L. Higgins unsalted saltine lying in a Tupperware bowl on the table, and Joe pours out a quarter size dollop.
“It kind of takes you away from where you are now and puts you in a happy place,” Joe says, leaning back.
He grabs his hot coffee, he takes it with cream and sugar, and sips it, unfazed by the scorching afternoon heat.
“My eyes are watering, but I like the taste of it,” the young man says. “What kind of cards do you take?”
“Good ones. And we’ll even give them back,” Joe replies, smiling.
He rings up a handful of bottles, takes another sip of coffee, and goes right back to calling out to the crowd.
“How do you like it, mild or wild?” he says to a couple holding hands passing by.
“Try this one. It comes right out and says ‘How the hell are ya?’”
Joe says he was in his back yard one night and spotted a UFO hovering in the sky. He lost consciousness after a flash of light and came to a few moments later with a fresh idea for a new hot sauce.
“The information was downloaded from an unknown location,” he says, with a smile.
He woke up knowing exactly how to make his Frying Saucer sauce, a sweet and hot combination of pineapple, papaya, mango and orange with Thai peppers, garlic, Vidalia onion and ginger.
“I get flashes of genius that are beamed from outer space,” he says.
Each one of Joe’s 11 sauces has its own unique story of how it came to be. Although some are easier to believe than others, collectively they illustrate how Joe’s business has expanded over the years and how he has found success in what he does.
Take his Cowboy Up sauce for example. That recipe came after customers at the Ocala Cracker Cattle Drive & Cowboy Round Up wanted sauce with a little more heat. Joe combined jalapenos, habaneros, five dry chilies, ghost peppers, onion, garlic and other spices to give them what they wanted. And it worked. They loved it and it’s now one of his best sellers.
Joe’s hot sauce business began with his Pompeii: City on Fire sauce. He made his first batch about two years ago. He and his wife, Donnie, own a pig farm called Great Tasting Pigs. Joe wanted a hot sauce that went well with his pork. He blended habanero peppers, pasilla peppers, arbol chilies, jalapeno, ginger, onion, garlic, tomato and sugar for the sauce and mixed it with tomato and vinegar. Friends and family tried the sauce and encouraged him to bottle more so they buy some. His business fired up from there.
Joe has so many sauces now that he has to bring a display cabinet to the Union Street Farmers Market. After organizing them into rows, he sells his 5-ounce bottles for $6 and 6-ounce ones for $7.
He has also established a bit of a reputation.
On April 1, Sweet Mel’s featured the “Volcano Joe” as its burger of the month, which was inspired by Joe and his hot sauce business. On top of a hamburger patty and melted cheddar cheese, thick, crispy onions rings get a dash of hot sauce to make it look like a volcano erupted.
Lance Norton, Sweet Mel’s general manager, said he was the mad scientist behind the Volcano Joe burger and that he frequently visits Joe’s stand to chat and buy his sauces.
“It takes love to make these sauces,” Lance says. “You can’t find this in the grocery store.”
Suzanne Wilcox, a 23-year-old UF graduate student in education, thinks so too.
“Amazing, amazing hot sauce,” she says, after sampling Joe’s Vampire Elixir.
She had never stopped at Joe’s stand before and left the farmers market with three bottles of hot sauce.
Not your average Joe
It took him about 40 years to find the career he loves.
Joe, 63, came to Florida from Chicago in 1973. He made the 1,193-mile drive on his Indian Super Chief motorcycle looking for a change of scenery.
His motorcycle ran out of water in Clearwater, Florida, so he took a couple looks around and decided to stay.
Joe then spent seven years furthering his education at St. Petersburg College, graduating with a two-year associates degree.
He didn’t know what he wanted to be. He majored in anthropology, microbiology and art before he decided to finish his degree requirements.
He then moved to Micanopy, Florida, were he ran a T-shirt design business called Zodiac Printing. He met his wife, Donnie, in Micanopy and ran the business for 20 years before moving to Lacrosse where he lives now.
Joe’s upbringing in an Italian household fostered many skills in the kitchen. His mother used to make giardiniera growing up, a dish that consists of pickling mixed vegetables and peppers, and made sure she passed the talent to him.
Making the giardiniera set the foundation for Wizard of Odd Hot Sauces, Joe says. That’s when he first got introduced to blending peppers in creative ways, a skill that he later applied to his sauces.
While in Lacrosse, he worked various jobs around Alachua County and even worked at the University of Florida for a time. But there was something missing.
“I’ve always been a free spirit,” Joe says. “Everyday I got off work I was in a bad mood.”
So Joe quit.
His wife, Donnie, bought him some pigs to fill his free time. She then established Great Tasting Pigs, an all-natural pig farm, with the intent to have Joe run the pig business as a hobby.
But he never seemed enthralled by the idea, according to Donnie.
So she took over managing the business, and Joe helped her during the busy season when she took the hogs to be processed. When Donnie butchered a pig for her own home, Joe decided the meat needed a little more flavor. So he created a hot sauce for himself. After family and friends wanted hot sauce of their own, he revamped the recipe and started selling the Pompeii: City on Fire sauce.
At the Union Street Farmers Market, he brags to a group sampling his sauces about Pompeii’s versatility.
“It’s designed to go with everything from eggs to oysters,” Joe says. “But if you don’t like hot sauce this stuff will kill you.”
Joe is at the farmers market every Wednesday. He puts on his Wizard of Odd character and entertains himself and others with his jokes and quirkiness.
“You have to keep things fun,” he says.
He ends almost every Wednesday with a trip to Sweet Mel’s. Joe and Donnie grab a table and cool off before heading home. The smiling and laughing continues as they order the Volcano Joe burger. Donnie snaps a photo of it on her phone so she can share it with friends and family as Joe cracks a smile.