It’s always nice when customers leave a restaurant happy and even say thanks for a great meal.
But what happened Friday night at Pietro’s Pizza Kauai went beyond the usual show of appreciation for a pie done well.
Maria Lopez, a professional opera singer on her honeymoon on Kauai, stood up after finishing dinner.
“I haven’t had pizza this good since I left Italy,” she said. “I’m so happy, I’d like to thank you. Can I thank you with a song?”
Of course, said owner Tom Iannucci.
For the next four or five minutes, Lopez delivered an aria, in Italian, loud and beautiful.
Everything came to a halt.
Customers stopped eating. Cooks came out from the kitchen. Passersby walked in from outside.
They all listened.
And when Lopez finished, everyone applauded and cheered.
“I was taken aback,” Iannucci said “It was pretty amazing. It was a wonderful experience for me, my family, the employees and all the guests.”
Such experiences are exactly what Iannucci plans to continue making happen since recently opening Pietro’s Pizza — 3501 Rice St. — at the Harbor Mall in the location of the former Feral Pig.
He has created an Italian dining atmosphere, featuring a brick oven pizza handmade in Italy and shipped to Kauai.
So committed is Iannucci to delivering the best pizza possible, his kitchen staff underwent intensive training by Mario Vollera, with the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association. The goal is to have Pietro’s Pizza certified by VPN as an authentic Neapolitan pizzeria, which would be the first in Hawaii.
It’s a lengthy process that calls for training, videos, more training and inspecting equipment and then another visit.
The VPN certification only comes when things are done to perfection, repeatedly . What it means is, they make pizza to the standards of Italians, who take their pizza very seriously.
Iannucci even went to Naples, Italy, last year for four weeks to study and practice the craft of traditional Neapolitan brick oven pizza.
“Naples is the birth place of pizza, so it’s s very unique style,” Iannucci said.
Their philosophy is, less is more. They believe in a little cheese, a little sauce, a little basil.
“You should be able to taste everything,” Iannucci said.
It’s about technique and skill, which is what Vollera drilled into the staff in his week-long training program.
Equipment is key, too.
The wood-fired brick oven cooks pizzas at 850 to 1,000 degrees in about 90 seconds. So the cook must watch it, turn it, the entire time. Timing is everything to achieve just the right freshness and flavor.
“New York pizza is very forgiving, ” Iannucci said. “You can make mistakes, you can keep it in a little longer. If it cooks a little longer, it’s still good. Neapolitan pizza is unforgiving. If you let it go 15 extra seconds, you burned it.”
Iannuci, an Italian who grew up in New York, has had a long love affair with pizza. He studied. He practiced. He trained. He experimented. He learned. He’s known for baking pizzas at his Eleele home for guests, friends and community functions.
With Pietro’s Pizza, he wants to bring something authentic and unique to Kauai.
Neapolitan Pizza, he said, “is a craft. It’s an art.”
His staff of about 30 full- and part-time employees understands what’s at stake.
“These guys develop a passion for what they’re doing,” he said. “If we’re passionate about what we’re doing, it will come through in the product.”
The dough is made fresh daily. The flour comes from Italy, specially made for wood-fired brick oven pizzas. Vegetables are local and fresh.
Consider some of the pizzas (they range from $15 to $25) and their ingredients on the menu at Pietro’s.
w Quattro Formaggi (four cheese) Whole Milk Mozzarella, Smoked Mozzarella, Gorgonzola, Fontina, Basil, Extra Virgin Italian Olive Oil
w Pietro (Peter) Crushed Tomatoes, Mozzarella, Pepperoni Americano, Parmigiano, Basil, Extra Virgin Italian Olive Oil
w Bresaola (Cured Beef) Crushed Tomatoes, Mozzarella, Parmigiano, Extra Virgin Italian Olive Oil, Kilauea Farms Arugula, Bresaola, Balsamic Glaze Drizzle
“When it comes to pizza with the VPN plaque on it, there’s a certain style of pizza you can expect,” Iannucci said.
Vollera said the training, the ingredients, the brick oven, are all part of delivering a traditional, artisan pizza to each customer.
“We’re very proud of our product,” he said. “We share it with family and friends, our culture.”
In training, he hammered home that message everything must be done precisely and correctly.
“Not close or almost or just about,” he said. “They understand why I’m so particular about the amount of cheese and amount of tomatoes on each pie. For us, it’s a tradition.
“Every pizza is good,” he Vollera added. “Our pizza is the best.”
Isaac Worth, who prepares the dough fresh daily and trained under Vollera, said Pietro’s Neapolitan pizza will “definitely change pizza on Kauai.”
“This is a new way and it’s been a lot of fun learning something new,” he said.
The dining room room at Pietro’s Pizza Kauai is open Wednesday through Saturday evenings until about 9 p.m. The window is opened 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday. It is closed Sundays.
Iannucci is pleased with the response to Pietro’s and loves to watch people’s reaction as they try the pizza. When he gets the chance, he visits customers and asks how they liked their dinner.
It’s a family affair, too. Wife D’Lissa, daughter Dondi and son Thomas all work at Pietro’s Pizza.
“That’s really the big blessing in it.,” he said.
Iannucci, a former police commissioner on Kauai, is also pastor of Breath of Life church in Lihue which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. He gives God the credit for the success of Pietro’s Pizza.
“He opened all the doosr,” Iannucci said.
Not that there weren’t tough times.
There were numerous unexpected challenges and obstacles and expenses, and times Iannucci said he didn’t really know what he was doing. He estimated the investment at more than $100,000 in equipment and renovations. But there was nothing that could not be overcome with perseverance, dedication and faith.
“The end of the day, it’s about Jesus,” he said.
He plans to continue to pastor Breath of Life. He said the congregation rallied around him in this new endeavor.
“They’ve been my biggest supporters,” he said.
Dave Erickson of Long Beach, California, and a part-time Kauai resident, is Iannucci’s business partner and substantial investor. Erickson believes the location of Pietro’s Pizza, near the Marrriott, the harbor and cruise ship crowds, and easy to see off Rice Street, is ideal.
But it was Iannucci’s passion for pizza that made Erickson want to back him up and be part of this venture.
“He absolutely loves making pizza. He’s back there, working hard, but he’s enjoying every minute of it,” Erickson said.
He has known Iannucci about seven years and said he was always talking about pizza, always making pizza and mentioned how he would love to operate his own pizzeria.
“So we started off kind of looking. Really, it just kind of came together. The next right thing always seemed to happen,” Erickson said. “It seems like this was meant to be. That’s the feeling I get.”
The name Pietro is after Iannucci’s grandfather, his father and his brother.