La Bella Pizza Garden
Balancing old-school charm with millennial-friendly updates, this still-expanding SoCal enterprise celebrated 65 years in 2020.
La Bella Pizza Garden in Chula Vista, California, was the brainchild of Tony Raso, a Purple Heart-decorated war veteran and dairy farmer, and his wife, Kitty, who honed her service charms as a waitress in Manhattan. Escaping the harsher winters of New York, they ventured together to Southern California, where Tony continued working as a farmer—until his boss gave him a loan to open the doors of his own business, La Bella Pizza Garden, in 1955. “We’re the oldest in the South Bay—halfway between downtown San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico,” explains Tony Raso Jr., current owner with his son; his brother, Joe; and his dad’s longtime right-hand man, Stan Dale. “We’re not in a Little Italy-type area; we are the Little Italy!”
The way La Bella Pizza Garden has grown over the decades, it can certainly make that claim. Today, the business occupies two storefronts on two parallel streets: the old-school original and now La Bella Cafe & Games, which spans 20,000 square feet and houses pool tables, arcade games and TVs for sports watching. An always-booked banquet facility seats 150, while indoor and outdoor seating packs in crowds year-round, from seniors returning regularly during breakfast hours and families sharing dinners to kids and millennial revelers enjoying the laid-back games area. “We’re an event center, where people meet to eat,” Tony Jr. says. “We’re always busy one way or another.”
Today, the third generation joins in, as Tony Jr.’s kids have developed their own areas of expertise. Son Matthew helps run the games room, while Michael manages back-of-the-house and prep areas. Like her grandma Kitty, his daughter Phyllis shines as a server, hosting parties. Since his brother Joe retired five years ago, Tony Jr. steers the ship and always keeps an eye out for expansions and improvements (he’s now eyeing a new event center a few miles away). “You have to be able to stay proactive,” Tony Jr. says. “I see a big future for us.”
Tony Sr., whom everyone in the area knew simply as “Papa,” would be proud—he was a fixture at the business until his dying day. A smooth communicator with a whole lotta heart, Tony Sr. was known for being a loving team leader, and that love flowed back to him from employees and community members alike. “He was so good with his staff, and that’s how La Bella grew,” Tony Jr. recalls. “Offering great-quality food at a fair price is important, but it’s all about the interaction.”
Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.