On a Wednesday at the Union Street Farmers Market fresh produce, local fare and handmade goods decorate the streets of downtown Gainesville.
A man with a grey handlebar mustache, warm smile and brown fedora sits next to wooden shelves lined with fifteen different hot sauce flavors. Visitors to the market frequently approach his tent for a taste and are greeted with quick-witted one-liners and a sample.
“We’ve got it mild and wild here,” Joe Di Vito beams.
A college student inspects a bottle of Hot Apple Pie hot sauce with habanero, applejack moonshine, pie crust, spices, apples and cinnamon listed on the side and asks if he takes credit cards.
“Yep and we’ll even give ‘em back!” he says, flashing a quick smile.
“The sauces are all natural. I’m even a second hand vegetarian,” he says. “The cow is a vegetarian and then I eat the cow.”
Another customer hands Di Vito, known as the Wizard of Odd, $20 but doesn’t want any hot sauce. Instead, he thanks Di Vito for the laughs and entertainment.
For Di Vito, 68, the weekly market is his opportunity to get out of the house and do what he loves: talk to people.
His wife Donnie, 62, who sits beside him with a carton of fresh eggs from their farm, smiles listening to his banter. She’s wearing fuzzy gloves, worn denim jeans and a hoodie on in the 60 degree weather.
Joe and Donnie prefer the peaceful solitude of their 10 acre Gainesville farm when they aren’t venturing into town for the market. There, Donnie maintains an all-natural pig farm called Great Tasting Pigs and Joe creates his masterful sauces.
The farm is in Gainesville but borders the city of Lacrosse. But Di Vito likes to consider his property to be in Lacrosse with its population of about 150 people as it’s more his style.
Their last home in Micanopy had no electricity and he is proudly continuing his streak of never having lived anywhere with cable TV. He does, however, own 94 out of the top 100 science fiction movies from the 1950s on DVD—something he is also proud of.
Originally from Chicago, Di Vito started a painting business that paid his way through college. He’s always known how to sell: sell himself first, then his product.
“I spent seven years in college and I’ve even got the two-year degree to prove it,” he says as those strolling past catch his contagious laugh.
He picked up and left Chicago in 1973, got on his ‘53 Indian Super Chief motorcycle and kept going until he ran out of gas in Gainesville.
He cycled through other careers, working as a Volkswagen technician, painter and electrician. He owned a t-shirt printing business and gas station. But his passion lies elsewhere.
After going through a divorce, he was looking for a change when he met Donnie. She worked at a travel agency, and Di Vito decided to try something new and book a cruise.
“This travel agent put me on a Disney cruise, which was terrible,” said Di Vito, who ended up newly single on a cruise for children.
Donnie worked at the desk behind that terrible travel agent. It was love at first sight for Joe. He kept coming in, asked her if she wanted to dance and the rest is history, he says.
Having harbored a passion for being in the kitchen since he was little, Di Vito used his mother’s Sicilian recipe to create his first hot sauce, called Pompeii: a City on Fire. He uses all natural ingredients and no salt.
He started bottling the sauce and friends and neighbors kept coming back for more, dropping off crates of peppers for Di Vito to turn into hot sauce. He still jokes that people all the way in Starke must have smelled it.
Someone suggested he sell his sauces and Di Vito began making so much of it that Donnie told him he couldn’t make any more new flavors until he restocked the sauces he was out of.
Five years later, the Wizard of Odd is booked across the state every weekend from February until June.
Donnie helps with the business side of things, managing his books along with booking festivals and markets; Di Vito is the creative one and fits the title. If he had to think about money, it would ruin his creativity, he says.
“I set him up and I turn him loose, I always say. What comes out of his mouth, I have no control of,” Donnie jokes. “He knows a lot of history and he reads a lot, so he can talk to almost anybody about anything.”
As people pass by, he calls out and greets familiar faces. Many approach his tent for their weekly dose of heat and humor. Di Vito seems to know everybody and everybody seems to know Di Vito.
Customers peruse colorful labels designed by Donnie with unusual names Di Vito has conjured up. Each name boasts an eccentric, offbeat story of inspiration.
Di Vito’s Frying Saucer sauce was named after he says he was abducted by a UFO one night while driving and awoke seven hours later in a field of grass hundreds of miles away with no memory of the incident. He hit his head months later, dislodging a translucent microchip, which the UFO later came back to retrieve.
He can’t prove that story he says, but he claims he’s seen at least 18 other UFOs. He’s sure of it because he could read the license plates on all of them.
As for the recipes, Di Vito also uses an unorthodox method for creating them.
A small notepad lies next to his bed, filled with scrawlings of ingredients and recipes he comes up with in his dreams. Some of them are even written in hieroglyphics, which he cannot read, he says flashing a smile and shrugging.
It’s this sort of unapologetic quirkiness that makes customers like Gage Bohner feel like they’ve known him for a long time.
Bohner, 37, came across the Wizard at the Waldo Flea Market and was drawn to the man who he described as a mix of Grizzly Adams and Paul Teutul Sr.
He tried the Rebel Yell sauce at the Waldo Flea Market, held back tears from the heat and quickly paid for two bottles so he could go find a drink. Hooked, he’s already planning his return for more hot sauce and to chat more with Di Vito.
“I believe you should always try to make everyone smile,” said Di Vito. “Sometimes that isn’t easy but I’m persistent.”
Visit Joe and Donnie Di Vito at the Union Street Farmers Market every Wednesday for some laughs and a taste of his renown hot sauces.
Photos taken by Diana Venturo Diaz