By Noah Austin | Photograph by Paul Markow
How good is the food at Little Italy? Consider this: Before Nino Buccellato opened this Gila Bend spot, he was running Nick & Nino’s Pizza up the road in Maricopa. That tiny restaurant piled up awards and developed a loyal following among locals — despite not having air conditioning. And if a Central Arizona restaurant can make it without A/C, the chef must be serving up something special — although, as Buccellato notes, “most of the orders were to-go or delivery.”
At Little Italy, there’s plenty of cool air and a lot more space to enjoy Buccellato’s expansive menu, which includes hand-tossed pizzas, subs, salads and classic Italian dishes, all made from scratch. The Gourmet pizza — with mozzarella, ground tomatoes, oregano, Parmesan, fresh basil and olive oil — is a fan favorite. Others rave about the spaghetti with clams, in a garlic and white wine sauce, and the calzones, which come in medium (12 inches) and extra large (16 inches).
The food is authentic, and so is the chef. Buccellato, a Sicily native, went to culinary school in Palermo and came to the U.S. to work in his family’s restaurants in Pennsylvania, then the Phoenix area — where he met his wife, Antonella, another Italian chef. The two opened Nick & Nino’s in 2003, then headed down State Route 238 to Gila Bend a few years later. In March, they celebrated 11 years at Little Italy.
Buccellato made the move in anticipation of Gila Bend’s growth, but the recession put the town’s expansion on hold. Luckily, word of mouth has led to regular customers from as far away as Yuma and Phoenix. And with the town being just off Interstate 8, the restaurant draws plenty of international travelers exploring the state. That includes Italians, who’ve told Buccellato that his food is as good as what they get back home.
Little Italy has even hosted royalty: In 2011, Prince Harry stopped in for dinner while he was in the area for military training. He ordered a 14-inch Meat Lovers pizza, with pepperoni, sausage, bacon and ham — and ate the whole thing, telling a staff member it was “the best pizza in the world.” The menu now proudly notes that the Meat Lovers is “Prince Harry’s favorite.”
The royal visit aside, Buccellato has embraced the underdog role: He knows people don’t expect to find an authentic Italian restaurant in Gila Bend. “I like to surprise them,” he says. “They come in, and they’re a little bit skeptical. And then: ‘Wow! What was I thinking?’ That’s satisfaction for me.”
Little Italy is located at 502 E. Pima Street in Gila Bend. For more information, call 928-683-2221 or visit www.littleitaliapizza.com.