Tony Cannuscio may be running a South Jersey-based Italian restaurant, but his roots put him in the heart of the most legendary pizza town in the world – Brooklyn, New York. That’s where Cannuscio grew up, learning the ins and outs of the pizza business by being ensconced in it, with his parents running their own Italian restaurant in the neighborhood, before moving the family to Atlantic City in the late ’60s and setting up the first incarnation of JoJo’s Pizza right on the Boardwalk, which eventually blossomed into a number of locations in towns like Pleasantville, Margate and beyond.
These days, Cannuscio runs Little Italy Pizzeria and Restaurant in Northfield, a casual dining location that has expanded upon the concept of the simple pizza parlor that he grew up in.
“I was a young kid when I started – I was 10 years old. And I grew up watching my parents. And there was no question about if I would be helping or not. In those days, even if you were a kid, you just got up and went to work and that was it. Back then it was kinda a simple menu — pizza, pastas, some sandwiches — not like today. Today we have evolved to more of a true dining experience. It’s a nice eclectic menu,” Cannuscio says.
The menu is indeed eclectic, offering a seemingly endless list of options, many of which expand far beyond the standard red sauce pastas that one would expect to find on the menu at any traditional Italian restaurant. Dishes here stand out, like their Portobello mushroom. which is stuffed with crab imperial, or the pan-seared diver scallops in a luscious roasted red pepper sauce over linguine that is simply to die for.
And though the menu branches out a bit, pizza is still the flagship item at Little Italy. An almost uncountable number of varieties dot the menu, from traditional plain pies to exotic options like the Pizza Rustica, which comes topped with mozzarella, arugula, shaved reggiano, prosciutto di parma and olive oil, or the Di Mare, a white pie topped with shrimp, scallops and calamari and a scampi sauce.
But perhaps no pizza on the menu is as beloved as the grandma pie. A longtime staple in Brooklyn, this square pan pizza is made with mozzarella that is topped with a chunky sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes, as well as a basil/pesto drizzle that really sets it apart. The crust’s thickness falls somewhere between a traditional pizza crust and a Sicilian, with a more buttery flavor. This style of pie has recently become popular in South Jersey with spots like Carluccio’s and Bakeria 1010 offering their versions, as well.
“The grandma pizza was a pizza that I was raised on in Brooklyn. It was a very popular pizza that recently came over to Jersey. I started to notice it in South Jersey around 10 years ago and everybody puts their own spin on it,” notes Cannuscio. “Now it’s become really popular here, we do a tremendous job with it, and it’s offered as a lunch special every day.”
While most pizzerias offer little more than a few booths and a no-frills atmosphere, Little Italy manages to present itself with a more sophisticated style, while still retaining the casual vibe. Dim lighting, dark wood and stone walls create a cozy and pleasant vibe. One could be equally comfortable taking a date here on a Saturday night or popping in for a quick lunch during the work week.
Speaking of lunch — one of the real selling points at Little Italy is their lunch specials, a full menu’s worth of Italian specialties at incredibly reasonable prices. The menu changes constantly, but recent options have included chicken a la vodka with broccoli plus soup or salad for $11; a ribeye cheesesteak with onions, peppers and provolone cheese on warm focaccia bread with French fries for $9; and, of course, the aforementioned grandma pizza for $9.
“Our specials run anywhere from $4.99 to $12.99 and people really like the value, especially at lunch, when they might be looking to only spend around $10,” Cannuscio notes. “That price point is exactly what we offer, and everyone loves it.”
Outside of the specials, the standard menu offers a myriad of options, from salads and sandwiches to burgers, paninis, calzones, stromboli, and some truly remarkable pasta dishes, including a penne vodka made with white wine, shallots, cream, tomato sauce and Romano cheese; and an indulgent fettucine carbonara with crispy pancetta and garlic in a cream sauce. They also offer a full list of cheesesteaks, including Italian spins on the Philly classic like the Paisano steak, with Italian long hots, fried onions, provolone and marinara; or the Pizza steak with mozzarella and pizza sauce.
Those looking for a lighter lunch can opt for more health-conscious dishes like their gluten-free cauliflower pizza or the Mediterranean salad with mixed lettuce, bruschetta, red onions, black olives and anchovies.
Dealing with COVID
Like all local businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has has a big effect on Little Italy. The indoor area of the restaurant seats 100 guests, which means under the current restrictions, they can seat 25 people indoors. But since COVID, they have expanded their outdoor dining greatly.
“What’s helped us tremendously is the outdoor patio,” Cannuscio says. “We can seat 80 people out there, separated nicely. The space was always here, but we took it to the next level by expanding it and doing some nice landscaping and lighting. It’s a very pleasant atmosphere in which to dine. And it’s worked out really great for us for now because people still prefer to dine outside, and it’s been warm enough recently to do so. As time goes by and winter comes I don’t know what will happen, but we anticipate doing more than normal as far as takeout and catering.”
Luckily for Cannuscio, takeout has always been a huge part of his business and continues to be to this day. While COVID caused other more upscale spots to wrestle with transforming into takeout-friendly spaces virtually overnight, at Little Italy it was already a major aspect of what they do best.
“Takeout is our bread and butter here. We always did a tremendous amount of takeout, and in that sense it’s good because we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel or change our menu or anything,” he says.
But that’s not to say there weren’t struggles.
“I can tell that the local offices and businesses are not open at 100%. We feel that. Because we used to deliver to those offices, and the workers used to come in here all the time, but we just aren’t seeing it like we used to. Not yet anyway.”
For the foreseeable future, takeout may be what gets spots like Little Italy through the winter months. Those looking to do takeout for the whole family are in luck as Little Italy has an entire subsection of the menu dedicated to family-style meals. They range in price from $34.99 to $79.99 and feed between four and six people. Options range from simple items like spaghetti and meatballs or chicken parm to a full Sunday gravy with handmade meatballs, sweet fennel sausage and brasciole over linguine along with sides of salad, homemade bread and cannolis for dessert. Sides and desserts vary depending on which meal you order.
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