East Coast attitude, Southern hospitality
The only beach Tony Zhuta sees is the ocean waves, jagged cliffs and coastal villas painted onto the walls of Tony’s Pizza and Pasta.
Between making pizza dough and homemade sauce, chatting with customers and supervising the waitstaff, Zhuta has little time to relax, much less take a vacation.
His mother, Amdije, his brothers and he devote their days to the restaurant that his father, Mirfit, gifted the family 16 years ago. “He trusted us and gave us this opportunity, and we’ll never forget it,” Zhuta says.
Mirfit is an ethnic Albanian who emigrated from Macedonia to New Jersey. He noticed that Italian restaurants flourished on the East Coast, but he didn’t like the region’s crowded urban vibe.
After relocating to Dallas, he opened a small, upscale Italian eatery in Denton, where Zhuta and his brothers learned to bus tables and take orders.
One day, when Zhuta was about 14, the restaurant’s chef, Stevie Rodriguez, announced he was tired of making meals for the teen. So he taught Zhuta how to cook. Decades later, the two work together at Tony’s.
“I don’t cook quickly or half-assed because I want people to enjoy it,” Zhuta says.
The bond between the family and their regulars are what Zhuta says motivates them. Customers adopted Amdije, known as Mama Dia, as an extension of their own family. They criticize Zhuta for not giving her enough breaks but complain that they miss her during her occasional days off.
Zhuta was the troublemaker as a kid, and he hasn’t lost his knack for being the instigator. He has no problem making fun of customers, regardless of their age. When two children lost a bet with Zhuta during the NBA playoffs, they had to wear white chefs coats and mustaches while bussing tables one night.
Their parents thought it was just as funny as Zhuta did, and the kids’ photo hung on the walls for years.
“Knock on wood, it’s been great for us so far,” he says.
The tortellini bolognese ($8.95) combines Tony’s alfredo and marinara sauces, poured over ricotta-filled tortellini.
The meat-lovers pizza ($11.95-$13.95) is topped with pepperoni, hamburger, pork sausage and Canadian bacon.