On Monday, we began our conversation with Isabella Mannone-Bertuccio of La Fontanella, the classic Italian restaurant in Arcadia, which opened its doors in 1982. This year the restaurant will be celebrating its 29th year in Phoenix. We headed over to get the full story behind the restaurant -- a story that began three decades ago with a small restaurant in Chicago where Isabella and her parents carved out their own piece of the American dream.
Back then, Isabella did it all -- and from the look of things, some things never change.
Laughing and smiling as she whirls around the cozy dining room, Isabella exudes an air of comfort and confidence that can only come with the more than two decades of experience she has as the matriarch of one of Phoenix's top culinary destinations. It's been a few years since La Fontanella's days in the spotlight of the food scene, but for Isabella, this is still home.
The old days
"As time went on I became [my mother's] helper in the kitchen too. So I'd help her chop the chicken, pound the veal, sauté the veal and then go in the dining room and host. So I wore my big black palazzo pants -- which are in style again -- and an apron and then go in the dining room and seat the reservations. Well anyways, [the restaurant] became very awarded. It was very simple, no tablecloths, but the food was so magnificent people used to come with their limousines and Rolls-Royces. We brought life into the old neighborhood. "
When Isabella's parents decided to retire and move back to Italy in 1980, she went too. She spent the year enjoying the food and learning the secrets of home cooking Italian style but decided to come back to the states in order to put down roots of her own.
"I did not like the environment to work in Italy. I was so used to the United States, where you could do anything you want to do if you persevere. Over there, it's tough. It really is limited and everything is very, very expensive to be able to try your hand at.
"My uncle lived in Phoenix, and I came here because he was my closest family and I got along with him very well. I decided I wanted to find an old house and I was going to open up a restaurant again. I wanted an old house because I wanted the feeling of an old house. So this was a really beat up old house from 1952 and I remodeled it almost totally."
The keys to success
"I felt very confident when I came out here that I could do it, but I wasn't confident about the economy of Phoenix. I knew if I owned my own building, at least if I should not succeed I wouldn't lose all my money. It takes not only knowing food and how to execute it. It also takes some common sense with money to survive . . . And I think that's something that's missing with a lot of people that go into business. I was not looking to be successful in one month, or six months or one year. I was in the kitchen; I was not in the dining room being glamorous. I was doing all the hard work."
You could say the rest is history, but if you take a step into the restaurant you'll see it's far from it. Isabella continues to hold her food to the highest standards and her eyes still light up as she talks about her passion. Her final words of advice:
"It's important to have people that make you laugh around you."