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,” said Tony Raso Jr., who currently owns La Bella 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 La Bella Cafe & Games, which spans 20,000 square feet and houses pool tables, arcade games and TVs for sports watching.

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this vintage black and white photo shows two women servers in white shirts, laughing together. One is folding a pizza box and the other holds a cup of coffee

La Bella Pizza Garden

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. told PMQ when La Bella was inducted into the Pizza Hall of Fame. “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. His brother Joe retired, so Tony Jr. steers the ship and always keeps an eye out for expansions and improvements. “You have to be able to stay proactive,” Tony Jr. said. “I see a big future for us.”

Tony Sr. (below), 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.”

this vintage black-and-white photo shows Papa Tony himself adding pepperoni slices to a pizza crust in a deep circular pan

“Papa Tony” Raso (La Bella Pizza Garden / Facebook)

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.