By Frier McCollister
In 1984, Dan Tarantino was working as a bartender in Los Angeles, after moving his young family here from the East Coast.
Settled in Arcadia, he worked a stint at the legendary Velvet Turtle in Chinatown, before landing a bit closer to home, at the old Sawmill steakhouse on Lake Avenue in Pasadena. It was there he realized his cherished vision of opening his own restaurant.
“I always wanted to open a restaurant,” Tarantino said.
“And my dream came true, when I was able to open one here in Pasadena. I always said, when I worked at the Sawmill, if I ever opened a restaurant, it would be in the city of Pasadena. I felt the people really appreciated good food. If you were good, you would survive. And I was right, thank God.”
The menu’s focus was never in question.
“I couldn’t find Italian food like I grew up on, back east. My grandmother was a really good cook, and I learned a lot from her. I should have learned more. That’s how I got it started.”
However, pizza was always the primary focus.
“Basically, my ex-father-in law owned a pizzeria in Dumont, New Jersey,” Tarantino said.
“I always wanted to go to chef’s school and he talked me out of it. He said, ‘Why do you want to go to chef’s school? You already know how to cook. You want to open a fancy restaurant? Why don’t you open something like I did? I just had a pizzeria, and I did very well.’”
Family recipes also came into play.
“When I opened the restaurant, I talked to his son, my brother-in-law, and was able to get the dough recipe from him and that’s how I started. I started with pizza and sandwiches. I had like six sandwiches and that was it,” he said.
“As time progressed, pasta became very popular and I started adding pasta dishes to my menu. I also introduced calzones and stromboli or Carmine’s Special, which is a stuffed pizza — stuff that people hadn’t actually seen out here. It was kind of unique and I kept on introducing new things.”
Tarantino always tested new menu items with his regular customers before they landed on the menu.
“The best way, I’ve always found, is to let people try it. If the response is positive, I did it. Basically, everything I ever tried, made it (on the menu),” he said.
Expansive but not expensive, the menu includes more than a dozen traditional pasta preparations, with a choice of linguini, fusilli, rigatoni, penne or angel hair ($5.25 to $6.75) as well as four salads ($5/$7).
Tarantino’s pizzas are of the old school New Jersey variety with a slightly thicker, crispier crust, delivering deep satisfaction with each bite. This is authentic American pizza at its very best. The pizzas here come in 14-inch and 16-inch diameter and offer a full spectrum of toppings. From plain cheese ($11.75/ $13.50) to “The Works” ($17/$19.75) one can run through the toppings accordingly.
The eight specialty pies are well worth considering. These include: Tucci’s special topped with shrimp, garlic, fresh tomato and basil ($17.75/ $19.50); Grandma Tony’s special, featuring “an extra special sauce handed down through generations from “Grandma” topped with a blend of imported cheeses, plus one topping ($15/ $17.50); or the popular Florentine with sautéed spinach and an imported cheese blend ($16.25/ $18.25).
Pro-tip: try half a Grandma Tony’s and half Florentine to get a real sense of what the guys at Tarantino’s can do. And those guys at the ovens have been with Dan Tarantino a very long time.
Tarantino had a bout with cancer, and it proved the dedication of his staff. It also allowed his son, Bo, to step up as well.
“I’ve been in remission now for two years,” Tarantino said. “It will be four years this June, when I had (the diagnosis of) stage four bladder cancer. I missed probably nine months. I would come in, but I couldn’t cook or anything.
“My staff and my son helped me out at that time. He actually took my place in cooking and being there.”
The experience also revealed the supportive community that his restaurant had forged over the years.
“If you have one good friend, you’re lucky,” he said. “But when I got cancer, I really couldn’t believe the support I got from my customers and my family, everybody. It was just a great feeling and it really helped me. It kept me positive.”
Bo and the staff maintained the operation of the restaurant seamlessly. “It was a good experience for me to see how well it was taken care of,” Tarantino said.
Unfortunately, an integral member of that team died unexpectedly less than a month ago. Jose “Pepe” Dones started working with Tarantino six months after the restaurant opened in 1984.
“This guy, he was like a brother to me and to my whole family,” Tarantino said.
“It’s been very trying. It’s such a loss. Thirty-six years and I never had a bad word with this guy, ever. He basically mellowed me out. I was crazy, I’m half German and half Italian. I do have a temper at times. Over the years, he was wonderful.”
That said, Dones’ son Daniel remains in the kitchen, as a nine-year veteran.
Tarantino can also still firmly rely on Carlos Diaz, who’s been at the restaurant for 32 years. Their acquaintance predates the opening of the pizzeria. Diaz was a busboy at the Velvet Turtle, when Tarantino was a bartender.
Tarantino is touched by his staff’s loyalty.
“They’re representing you,” he said. “If you treat them badly, they won’t stay with you. That’s why I’ve been able to keep my guys so long.”
“I’d love to retire but the pandemic hit and where am I going to put my guys? I’m 74 years old, but I also love what I do, and I don’t mind being here, to be honest with you.
“You only get back what you give in life. I feel during the whole pandemic, I’ve been able to survive because of my customer base. They’ve supported my guys and they’ve supported me through this whole thing.”