By Alexandra Mortati, Women In Pizza

Opening a pizza restaurant didn’t originate as Blair Pietrini’s dream. It was her late husband Gene’s, but she was a driving force in turning Pietrini Pizza Napoletana, located in Los Alamitos, California, into a reality.

“I’m still wrapping my head around that fact, that this is my life now,” she says. “My husband was so absolutely passionate about pizza. He grew up in Chicago, and his cousin and uncle owned a little pizza place in a strip mall with the quintessential red leather booths that did a huge takeout business. Gene loved any opportunity to head back into the kitchen and throw some dough and make a pizza. It was so obviously his happy place.”

After graduating college in San Diego, California (where they met), Gene and Blair married in 1980 and had three children: a girl (Nicole) and two boys (Taylor and Landon). Gene worked as a financial planner and later served as a pastor for over 30 years. During these years, he never lost his love of pizza or his dream of owning his own pizza place. “He was a meticulous planner, and I was the risk-taker,” Blair recalls. “Every now and again, I’d ask him, ‘Are you ever going do this?’ And he’d say, ‘Yes, I have to do this.’ But so many people who have dreams never pull the trigger, so I said, ‘OK, I’m going to keep nudging you.’”

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Blair never stopped encouraging Gene to live out his dreams. “Being a risk-taker, I didn’t want to come to the end of our time saying, ‘We coulda, woulda, shoulda. I’m good with it if it doesn’t work, but I’m not good with us not trying. I’d wake up some mornings at 1 or 2 a.m., and he would be looking at his phone, researching cheese or tomatoes, and I’d think, ‘This is not normal, just do something already.’ He was waiting for the time to be just right—and we all know it seldom ever is—so I continued to nudge him along because I saw the joy that it brought him.”

When their daughter, Nicole, was born in 1983, Blair bought Gene a square pizza stone from William Sonoma. That eventually led to a pizza oven in the backyard, then years later a portable Ooni. “Twice a month, we would have six to 10 people over for pizza night, and my husband would hardly visit with them. Instead, he’d go outside and just keep making pizza. Friends of ours have an Italian restaurant, and they thought his pizza was really good, so they agreed to let us do four pop-ups at their place when they were closed. We had live music and charged $25 for three hours of all-you-can-eat pizza. At home he’d make 12 pizzas a night, and now we were making up to 120 in three hours! That experience really helped push him to the next level and gave him a little better understanding of what having a restaurant would be like.”

This photo shows Blair Pietrini standing next to her son, with her late husband sitting beside the son.

Blair (right) with her late husband Gene and their son Landon. (Courtesy of Blair Pietrini)

Blair continues: “Our restaurateur friend recently revealed to my son and I that they had invited us to ‘pop-up’ hoping it would discourage us from following through on this ‘pipe dream.’ They told us that they had strongly advised Gene not to open a restaurant [due to the difficulty and low success rate of the restaurant business].”

The friends’ plan actually had the opposite result, as Gene just kept his head down, pumping out pizza after pizza, and found the experience exhilarating. What was meant to discourage Gene only lit a bigger fire under him.

Blair recognized the risk of pursuing this dream. “I told Gene, ‘We have a nice house, but I don’t care if we have to move and live somewhere else. I don’t want to live with a dream never realized or never attempted. To me, that would be the worst.’”

Even once they committed to bringing Gene’s dream to fruition, there were moments of doubt. “We opened right in the middle of COVID-19. Gene asked me if I wanted to pull the plug during the long, drawn-out building process, but I thought, ‘No, it’s now or never.’ I’m beyond grateful that he was able to see his dream realized.”

Two years ago, Gene passed away unexpectedly from a complication during back surgery. His extremely athletic life had led to several injuries and surgeries over the years. He had been a pole vaulter in high school, a goalie on his college soccer team, and surfed for years until he could no longer enjoy the sport due to the pain he was experiencing. Several months after Pietrini Pizza Napoletana opened, Gene’s pain got so bad, he was no longer able to stand long enough to make pizzas.

“Towards the end,” Blair remembers, “he would just come in and pull up a chair tableside with customers and chat it up with them. It made him so happy. Sometimes I’d have to go over and tell him to let them eat.”

This photo shows Blair on the makeline with her employees and smiling at the camera.

Courtesy of Blair Pietrini

Their son, Landon, inherited Gene’s passion for pizza. “In 2016, Gene was having issues with his back, but he had already registered for Tony Gemignani’s pizza school in San Francisco,” Blair says. “Part of the class included working the line in Tony’s restaurant, and Gene realized he couldn’t spend all of that time on his feet, so he sent Landon in his place. That was Landon’s first real taste of what pizza making was like; the fire was ignited, and he became a certified pizzaiolo.”

Reopening after Gene’s passing was bittersweet, Blair reflects. “We were closed for a matter of weeks. I was sort of hiding out in the kitchen just making pizza and salads so I wouldn’t have to talk to people. But, little by little, I found myself going out and talking to people once again, and it was very healing. It got a bit easier as the days went by. You need to have a purpose to get back up again. If I didn’t have that, I would have had many more days in my bed. Showing up is half the battle.”

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Her pizza-loving son has been a comfort, too. “To be able to work with my son, Landon, day in and day out also makes it easier. My personal journey with grief has definitely broadened my awareness and sensitivity to people and what they are going through. For me, this is far more than just a restaurant or business. I always want our restaurant to be serving good food along with a huge helping of kindness and hospitality.”

Hospitality is ingrained in Blair and her family. “We don’t know a whole lot about the restaurant business, but I think it’s in our favor that we work hard, and we will do what it takes to get the job done. We believe in our product and stand by the high-quality ingredients we use. Landon is equally as passionate about pizza as his dad was, and I think our family’s genuine love, concern and care for people translates into everything we provide at Pietrini Pizza.”

The Pietrinis truly do care about people. For 25 years, Blair has run a nonprofit called Grateful Hearts Storehouse. She previously had an 8,000-square-foot warehouse with a food pantry. “We fed people 4 times a week and sent trucks out 5 times a week to secure food donations, feeding thousands each month. We had special-needs programs and a Felon to Freedom program.”

In this black and white photo, Blair is shown wearing a fedora-like hat, a white sleeveless t-shirt and words written on her neck: We Can All Do Something.

Courtesy of Blair Pietrini

After Gene’s death, Grateful Hearts scaled back considerably but has still been able to provide holiday meals for hundreds of families, including approximately 40 families this past year, along with providing gifts for over 100 military children in need as well as children with severe illnesses in 2023 through a toy drive held at Pietrini Pizza. Additionally, Grateful Hearts partnered together with Pietrini Pizza Napoletana in their “Lifting up Lahaina” campaign this past August (where 50% of all Aloha pizza proceeds were donated) and sent more than $2,000 to the Maui Food bank to assist in the feeding of displaced people as a result of the Maui wildfires.

“Giving back to our community is something that is very important to us as a family, as is helping people in need,” Blair notes.

Realizing that running a restaurant is rather time-consuming, Blair has sought ways to help those in her community through the restaurant itself, for example, by hiring individuals in need of a second chance. One such individual was a young man who was raised in the projects of Chicago and became involved with gangs, served prison time, and after being released, moved to California to start over. He found it difficult to find a job, but upon meeting him, Blair knew immediately that she wanted to provide him with an employment opportunity.

Team Pietrini welcomed him with open arms and treated him with the respect and dignity he deserved. This young man ended up exhibiting an incredibly strong work ethic and took pride in the product he produced. He was a valuable employee for a full year, up until the time he decided to move back home to rejoin his family in Chicago. He remains in contact with many of the staff to this day.

Pietrini Pizza has also joined in partnership with Home Boy Industries, the largest gang and ex-felon rehabilitation and placement program in the U.S., in an effort to give graduates a second chance. Blair provides training and employment at Pietrini Pizza to help them get a fresh start in life.

For Blair, Pietrini Pizza Napoletana has always been about more than just pizza. “The customer service and hospitality part of the business are some of the most important aspects for me. When people come into our restaurant, I want them to enjoy great food, great company and great service. People have said that they feel like they are in our home kitchen, and that’s beautiful. We don’t want to feel like a corporation. We’re endeavoring to be authentic to who we are while learning everything possible to sustain the growth we are experiencing.”

For others out there, Blair is a testament to her own advice. “I’m no spring chicken, but I don’t think it’s ever too late to try something new or to see your dreams realized,” she says. “There are people who might count someone out simply because they are older or a woman or an ex-felon or whatever. Everyone has a story, and it’s about bringing our true authentic selves into every aspect of our business and making it uniquely our own. Some people choose what they do for monetary gain, but if it’s not something you love doing, don’t even attempt to go down that road. There’s something about going into a restaurant and meeting the owner or chef and seeing right away that it’s the passion of their heart.

“Tough times are going to come for everyone in both life and business, even though it may look differently. If you truly love what you do and are willing to fight for it, it helps you move forward with confidence. From all outward appearances, it was insane for us to start a restaurant this late in the game. Even though we experimented with our pizzas on friends and family and later tested the market through catering with a mobile wood-fired oven, opening a brick-and-mortar location was still a huge risk for us.”

Family is of the utmost importance to Blair, and it’s where she draws strong boundaries. “I often have people giving me advice and telling me how many hours we should be open, etc. For us, especially because of what we have been through, I don’t hesitate to let people know that I am not willing to sacrifice anyone on the altar of pizza. Family comes first, and though we’ll give our best when it comes to business, what we do has to be sustainable. We need to expand and cross-train our staff, so that those who desire to have a life outside of the restaurant actually can.”

Alhough owning a restaurant was never on Blair’s radar, it surfaced as a result of her life with Gene. “I have worked in various restaurants over the years,” she points out. “I have been a dishwasher, a cook, a bookkeeper, a hostess and a server, but never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would own a restaurant.”

She continues: “Pizza didn’t really come into my world until I met Gene. He talked about pizza endlessly through the years. Dates and vacations always involved pizza. He was so happy when we finally opened the restaurant and thrilled that ‘our dream’ had finally come true. I later clarified that it was not my dream, but his dream, although my dream was actually for him to see his dream come true! I’m thrilled that he did it. He took the risk and made it happen! Pietrine Pizza Napoletana isn’t a huge place, but it’s not a small place either. We have 86 seats inside and 25 outside. We have a beer and wine bar.”

Not everyone will follow their dream as far as Blair and Gene did, she says. “Most people choose not to take the risk in the end and instead choose only to try to learn from the mistakes of others rather than their own, but it’s all part of the journey. Our family wishes things wouldn’t have happened the way they did. You can choose to become bitter about your situation, or you can have Landon’s perspective: ‘These are the cards we were dealt.’ It is what it is, and we can’t go back and change what happened to us, but we can choose what we do from this point moving forward and allow those things to mold our character and hopefully take some of what we have learned through our experience to help someone else along the this journey.”

Blair’s experience in restaurants impacted how she runs Pietrini Pizza Napoletana today. “Dishwashing was one of my jobs in my college cafeteria,” she recalls. “I flunked math in high school, but when I was hosting at a very successful restaurant, the manager asked me to become the bookkeeper. I ended up loving it. I realized that I accepted the position at that time because numbers felt like an area of failure in my life, and I needed to get past it. Gene and I waited tables together at a restaurant, and some of the staff we came across were so miserable. Managers were condescending, and I’d watch people make more mistakes because of how they were treated. At Pietrini, we are working hard to build a culture that incorporates our core values and shows our employees and staff that we truly care about them and their lives.”

As for the future? “For me, the focus is on sustaining the growth we are currently experiencing,” Blair says. “We’ve experienced over 100% growth in the last year. People ask us if we’re planning on opening for lunch anytime soon, but again, we’re making decisions that will help sustain that family balance. We’re only open five days a week and we open from 4 p.m. until 9 p.m. For a restaurant, our hours are short. We have no desire to build a pizza empire. We desire to do what we do with excellence and not grow beyond our means—I don’t mean just financially, but in whatever ways would take us away from our core values.”

“Regret is something I don’t want to live with,” she adds. “Before Gene passed, my dad passed away in 2017. Just seven months to the day later, my mom passed away. In 2020, my sister-in-law, who was very dear to me, passed away. Then, seven weeks later, her husband—my husband’s brother—died. Lastly, my husband died in 2021 unexpectedly during surgery. It was just one loss after another. Everything we’ve been through has really reinforced what matters most, and it’s definitely not the money or the job. It’s the people that we care about. I will do everything within my power to run this business with a family-first mindset. The long-term goal is to have something that is successful, stable and sustainable to pass on to my kids, and hopefully even my grandkids.”

As a woman, Blair finds she has her own strengths that were complemented by Gene’s. “I think my husband would have agreed with the fact that women have an ability to multitask well. It’s wired into them. Gene was more ‘black-and-white’ when it came to seeking and providing answers and solutions. I tend to want to flesh things out and take more of a nurturing approach to situations. For the most part, I believe women tap into and prioritize compassion and nurturing. We may take a more roundabout approach, so where it might take me 15 minutes to answer something, my husband would have answered immediately. We balanced each other out. We were a great team. I realize that a lot of my confidence came as a result of my husband being my biggest protector and cheerleader. I knew he was always in my corner. It was about being a team and recognizing the value of our team and the unique differences and pieces we each bring together to balance each other. Men are built to be protectors, and women are built to be nurturers. In a really healthy situation, you should have both. If we negate someone because they are one or the other, we lose out hugely.”

Blair seeks to emulate those very things she talks about: being protective, nurturing, compassionate, wise, authentic and risk-taking. She doesn’t stand in her own way, and she doesn’t let others either. She follows her intuition and stays true to herself. She cares deeply about people and wants to create opportunities for them. She leads with her heart and creates space for those who need it most.

Alexandra Mortati is the marketing director for Orlando Foods and founder of Women In Pizza, a not-for-profit organization that empowers women in the pizza industry to share their stories, display their talents, inspire innovations, and connect with one another and the world. This article originally appeared on the Instagram account for Women In Pizza. Click here to learn more about the organization.

Marketing, Pizzerias