The Italian word pazzo translates to wild, maybe insane, somewhat mad. And that’s what opening a restaurant during a pandemic takes. But Alfonso Di Bonito and Leventi Tischler welcomed customers to their new Santa Rosa Beach location of Pazzo Italiano in July 2021, while much of the world remained shuttered.
As a child, Alfonso sat at the pizza bar watching pizziolas craft their woodfired pies in his hometown Naples.
Those early days watching dough transform into a crunchy yet soft canvas for sweet Marzano tomatoes, fragrant basil, and creamy mozzarella inspired the layout and menu at both Pazzo locations.
“When I was little my parents didn’t tell me to sit at the table to eat; they sat me at the bar where the chef made pizza, and I fell in love with what he did. I wanted to bring those memories here,” said Alfonso.
The dedicated pizza bar at each location stays full. On a recent Friday night visit, the heat from the massive oven matched the warmth among guests chatting and laughing with the chef as he moved pizzas in and out of the fire. Boisterous conversations filled the dining room as we headed to our table.
Alfonso’s partner Leventi shows up in the details around the dining room—elegant water glasses with just enough heft, a modern mix of wood, exposed brick, and metal, soft Edison lights, a wall of wine bottles—all evidence of a seasoned front of the housemaster. He, like Alfonso, started his career at the tender age of 14, a little further afield in Romania. Each gravitated to their strengths. Alfonso marshaled the kitchen and food, while Leventi orchestrated service and guest experience. And in 2017 they combined those talents to open their first Pazzo in Destin, followed three years later by the larger Santa Rosa Beach spot that includes space for large parties and events.
Our server Shannon pointed us to the chef’s specials highlighted in each menu section. Alongside Alfonso’s family recipes are traditional Italian favorites like fettuccine alfredo and lasagna, and the wine menu offers a wide selection from regions around the globe. We started with “Alfonso’s Mussels and Beans,” featuring a homey broth filled with layers of meaty cannellinis, bursting cherry tomatoes, and plump mussels served with toasted bread for sopping up the tasty bits. The next course didn’t disappoint. The Pappardelle Dello Chef layers ribbon-thin pasta with sliced Italian sausage and cremini mushrooms tossed in a smoked gouda sauce drizzled with truffle oil—perfect for some more sopping with the seemingly endless supply of homemade bread.
A cornerstone of Pazzo is their award-winning, woodfired pizza. Alfonso longed for the ones he remembered in Naples, but couldn’t find it here. Bringing it to his new home in the United States required a couple of ingredients: a good dough and an oven capable of reaching 900 degrees.
“I always say everybody can make pizza, but making good pizza…it’s different,” said Alfonso.
“Good“ pizza for him is light. The dough’s fermented for at least 24 hours. It picks up the smoky flavors of the oak wood while cooking.
The satisfying crackle of the crust leads to a soft interior chew. He imports his flour, canned tomatoes, and mozzarella all from Italy. “I’ve used the same type of flour for over 10 years. When I like something, I stick with it.”
The copper-surrounded oven is another necessary ingredient. It’s an Acunto, designed and built by four generations of the Acunto family, brick by brick, in Naples. The signature low dome and small oven mouth deliver intense heat that blisters the crust, creating a true Neapolitan pizza. We ordered a “Specialita Del Pizzaiolo” to take home and feast on later—a lightly charred crust topped with briny artichoke hearts, hunks of porchetta, ricotta cheese, and olive oil. Each pizza is about balance. “We want you to taste the dough, the sauce, the toppings, all the flavors,” said Alfonso.
Pazzo’s combination of industrial and rustic, family-style and special occasion, international yet neighborhood vibe welcomes a wide swath of patrons year-round. Whether you are leaving the beach or out for a date, the burning oak scented air surrounding the building draws you in with the promise of comforting Italian food that transports you straight to a neighborhood in Naples where you can catch up on local gossip, celebrate a birthday, and always feel like a part of the family. And on any given day Alfonso and Leventi are there helping prep, checking on tables, opening bottles of wine.
Walking out, I passed a young girl, maybe six, busily tearing into her Nutella calzone, chocolate dripping down her face while marveling at the roaring fire in the pizza oven. Another generation, an ocean away from Alfonso’s childhood home, is falling in love with the pizza bar.