Joe Fugere opened Tutta Bella pizzeria in Columbia City in 2004. A veteran of several Northwest-based companies, including Starbucks and Taco Time, he decided it was time to go into business for himself and produce true traditional Naples-style pizza.
Today the south Seattle restaurant is filled with blond wood tables and bears sweet touches like parchment paper pendant lights and brick walls. Though it’s not yet 10 a.m., an applewood fire is burning in the oven and trays of sliced mushrooms are waiting to be roasted.
Fugere comes in and orders a cappuccino over the heads of two regulars at the coffee bar. As he walks toward the kitchen, he explains that his is both slow food and fast food. In keeping with the slow food movement, the pizzeria protects a food tradition by using fresh and simple ingredients, including flour and tomatoes from Italy. It’s fast because “All of our toppings are usually pre-cooked or cured to perfection,” he says. “Then it only takes 90 seconds to cook a pizza.”
It’s pizza done the original way. So original, that judges from Naples, the birthplace of pizza, have examined the business from ingredients to oven and awarded an Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN) certification. “We’re very proud of that. We were number 198 in the world, but number 10 in the U.S.,” he says. “And we were the first in the Northwest.”
The road to being a restaurateur took Fugere through some landmark Northwest companies. After graduating from WSU, he moved to Southern California and worked for Westin Hotels. A few years later, he came back to Washington to journey into the executive ranks at Taco Time. Fugere was one of the few non-family members there. Then he went to Starbucks. “It was like getting a Harvard MBA,” he says. The executives were from some of the country’s biggest, most successful companies including Clorox, Pepsi, Nike, and McDonalds.
But after decades in the food industry, he was ready for change. He thought he would venture into another of his loves, maybe architecture or nonprofit work. A life coach helped him refocus. “She said, ‘You can still enjoy architecture and doing nonprofit work, but your background is in restaurants and you’re really good at it,’” he says. “So I decided: pizza. Most Americans eat it and it ties with my Italian heritage.”
Fugere found a Naples-based association that certified pizza-makers. He traveled to Italy and spent several weeks working in century-old pizzerias, learning to be a traditional pizzaiolo. Then he returned to Seattle to open his first restaurant near the Beacon Hill neighborhood where he grew up. Instead of advertising, he simply posted his business plan in his front window. “People were stopping and reading it,” he says incredulously.
On January 2, 2004, he opened his doors at 5 p.m. and “There was a line all the way down to the corner.” He made nearly every pizza himself. The dough had to be mixed in advance and allowed to rise over days. He had prepared enough to supply pizzas for 200. “But by 7 o’clock I had run out,” he says. When he stood on a table to apologize to the crowd, to his surprise they cheered.
In the following months, he reached out to the neighborhood. “I feel it’s important to tell people that from the day they start their business to start giving back,” he says. “And giving doesn’t always mean checks.” One of the first things he did was offer space to a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He also donated coffee, pizza, and pastries to local volunteer groups.
Fugere also joined the Washington Restaurant Association and joined the government affairs committee. “I thought it would push me a bit,” he says. An issue popped up about sidewalk cafés. “It took months. It cost thousands of dollars. And you had to work with four different agencies,” says Fugere, noting that the complications countered the mayor’s own vision of making the city’s core areas more like Europe’s. “I met with all the city council members. I met with the mayor,” he says. “I even spoke at a city council meeting.” In 2008, the city council simplified the permitting process.
Fugere’s work on behalf of restaurants and his role in the community have brought him national attention. Tutta Bella has won local, regional, and national awards, and last August was named pizzeria of the year by Pizza Today. That same month, Fugere met with President Obama when he was in Seattle and in September went to Washington, D.C., for the signing of the Small Business Jobs Act.
The awards, even getting to represent Seattle’s small businesses to the president, are byproducts of tying in with your community, says Fugere. “It’s about being generous with your time, your money, and your people,” he says. “It’s participating from the very beginning. From the day you hang your sign on the building, opportunities will come to you.”