By Coty Dolores Miranda
By now, “pandemic pivot” has become a cliché in describing businesses’ efforts to stay afloat during the pandemic and overcome its detrimental impact on their income.
In Ahwatukee, the family owners of Trattoria D’Amico have, by necessity, coined their own unique twist on it: pandemic pizza.
Business was going well for the three D’Amico siblings after they purchased Ahwatukee’s oldest continuously operated restaurant, Ruffino’s Italian Cuisine, adding not only their family name but authentic Italian family recipes as well.
They purchased the then-27-year-old restaurant in January 2016 and proudly placed their name over the door — the same name their mother Vilma had for the restaurant she founded in Rome nearly 50 years ago — and won numerous plaudits for their cuisine.
But then, March 2020 brought the first mandatory COVID-19 shutdown, plunging the world, and certainly business owners, into an abyss of fear and uncertainty.
“We weren’t sure the restaurant would open at all,” says Claudia D’Amico, who runs Trattoria D’Amico with her brother Romolo. Their older brother Mossimo returned to Italy to attend to family matters.
When the restaurant finally reopened, Claudia says they were operating at less than 50% capacity.
Prior to the pandemic closure, Trattoria D’Amico, at 4902 E. Warner Road, had received excellent reviews; Tripadvisor awarded the restaurant four and a half stars for all categories: food, service, value and atmosphere.
The trattoria maintained a loyal clientele that feasted on their family recipes for fresh-made pastas, sauces and breads gleaned from their mother, who had learned them from her mother.
Yet their business never recovered.
“It was a big loss, we were really impacted and not doing well at all,” Claudia says. “The people who used to come — well, they were afraid to go out. We all were. We tried reopening as an Italian grocery store, but we still didn’t have enough business.”
But, as if Fortuna, the Italian goddess of fortune, was looking out for the family who emigrated from Italy to Ahwatukee in 2015, there was already a plan in motion for a new venture: handmade pizza cooked and served from a pizza oven on wheels.
A mobile pizzeria may be the saving lifeline for not only the family business but their ability to remain in the country.
“We came up with the concept before COVID, and by the time the oven was ready, we had imported it from Italy, it was the end of March 2020,” Claudia explains. “We held off for a little while, as we weren’t sure how to go forward, but then we got the license as a food truck.”
And that food truck, an authentic pizza oven on wheels, has become a popular draw at area farmers markets, business events and as an extended lunch-time offering at Honeywell’s 3209 E. Airlane facility.
“We are also doing private parties and are already getting asked to be at graduation parties,” says Claudia, who lives with her husband, Aleffio, and their two daughters, ages 7 and 3. “It’s basically like having a piece of Italy parked outside your door.”
The desert’s summer heat is also cause for change, yet another pivot for the D’Amico’s.
“We plan to go to Payson this summer when it gets too hot here,” Claudia says. “Besides our own, we’re borrowing a friend’s oven so we can do more.”
She is optimistic that when fall arrives in the Valley of the Sun, signature festivals like Ahwatukee’s FOL Kick-Off and Chandler’s Arizona Harvest Fest, both held in November, will see a resurgence as more residents are vaccinated and feel free to gather once again.
By then, the D’Amico’s road will be a different one.
“The restaurant will never reopen. It was already on the plan, (but) we will be at that location for as long as we can,” she says. “The future I see is having a second oven, starting a fleet. Then we can be at several places on the same dates.”
The success of their mobile pizza oven business is crucial to the D’Amico family, who rely on it to maintain their visa — known as a Treaty Investor Visa, or E2. The visa permits foreign investors and their family to live in the country by investing in a commercial enterprise.
One of the advantages of the E2 visa is that it can be extended indefinitely — for as long as the business concerned is viable.
Claudia, her brother Romolo and their families have acclimated to living here and wish to stay. To ensure that happens requires a focused dedication to their business, Claudia says.
“We have to make it because as long as the business is going, we can be here. As long as the business goes well, we can be here,” she says, her dark eyes emphasizing the passion behind words. “The only chance you have, we have, is to go for it.”
Determination to succeed, despite what life throws at them, is engrained in the D’Amico family. It was proved when they left the comforts of their homes in Italy to immigrate to Arizona, and it bloomed like yeast in dough when the pandemic fallout hit their business.
“It’s an act of courage to leave an old concept and start a new one, but we need to keep moving and improving. I tell people when something bad happens to them, they don’t have to give up, they should do whatever they can to do for that extra push,” she says. “You gotta fly.”
Augmenting the handmade pizzas cooked to order on-site is the selling of grocery items the D’Amico’s import from Italy — extra virgin olive oils, balsamic vinegar, sundried tomatoes, artichokes, tuna, biscotti and more.
Besides the pizza doughs handmade by Romolo, Claudia’s fresh-baked Italian pastries are also available at their farmers market stops.
The family continues making it a point to take Mondays and Tuesdays off to focus on family, a practice they began before COVID-19.