Pizzeria embraces Sicilian roots while remaining current

Cross Balsamo is fond of likening himself, and his childhood habitat growing up in a pizzeria, to “a fish in the water.”

Balsamo, 31, who owns La Pizza Casa in Altoona with his wife, Jaime, 34, does so to illustrate how he never had to learn the business, but rather had it instilled naturally.

“It’s been in my blood. I was brought up in this business since I was a baby,” he said Monday, sitting next to Jaime, who is also a nurse at UPMC Altoona, inside the cozy and neat dining room of their restaurant located at the corner of Fourth Street and 22nd Avenue.

Cross, and his brother, Matt, 29, who is La Pizza Casa’s general manager, spent many years in a pizzeria business that their father, Giuseppe, who came to America from Sicily in 1980, and mom, Shirley, opened locally in 1981.

Cross and Jaime didn’t get into the restaurant business right away, though.

When they married, Cross, “broke away from the family business because I wanted to try to make some real cash for myself rather than take more from my parents,” and discovered he enjoyed masonry work.

The winter months were a struggle, though, and Cross told Jaime when the opportunity presented itself, they would open a pizza shop in order to have a steadier income.

The restaurant opened in October 2010.

“She knew it had kind of been a little side dream of mine,” he said. “So here we are three and a half years later.”

One day, they hope to pass it on to their son, Joey, 9.

“He just told your mom last night he wants to be a pizza man,” Jaime told Cross.

“We hope to instill in him everything that was passed to me so we can some day down the road keep the legacy alive for a third generation pizzeria,” Cross said.

Although it would be nice, Joey doesn’t have to take over the restaurant, Cross said.

“I never want to force anything on anybody’s own goals and dreams in life,” Cross said. “But at the same time, though, you try to include him in the business so he kind of has the same feelings I had when I was growing up in the business, seeing how it all goes down.”

The brothers “took a lot of what [their parents] gave us and we evolved and came up with new ideas and new innovative ways of doing things on our own, as well,” Matt said.

Cross said he learned from his dad, but since he was brought up in the United States he brings some new flavor to the table.

“I’m the traditional, but I’m the up and coming too, because I like doing all the new, what’s hip. I like all the new hip foods,” he said.

In that respect, La Pizza Casa offers buffalo chicken or BBQ chicken ‘bolis – short for stromboli – and pizzas, Cross said. They are also going to offer a burger menu, and in the warmer months offerings from the restaurant’s ice cream parlor will include sundaes and milkshakes.

“So we don’t just serve pizza, but we try to hit everybody’s taste buds,” Cross said.

The Balsamos make their own dough and homemade bread, and hand toss their pizza dough, they said. They also use fresh, local ingredients, he said.

Jaime Balsamo wants customers to experience “good food” and a “friendly atmosphere,” she said.

When the restaurant is open, chances are good that regular customer Joshua Moore of Altoona has eaten or is about to eat there.

Moore loves “them as people, too,” he said of Cross, Jaime and Matt. The staff is “real polite all the time.”

His list of what he enjoys eating at the restaurant included their grilled chicken and steak salads, pizza, spaghetti and chicken parmigiana.

“The bread’s the best. I mean nobody can make bread this good. It’s their own recipe,” he said. “I love their meatballs. Their meatballs are out of this world. … Anybody who doesn’t eat there is missing out on the truthfully good things in life.”

And life is good for the Balsamo family.

Business is “wonderful,” Cross said.

“Everything we imagined materialized, so it’s pretty cool how that works. When you think of that ahead of time and then all you do is go to work every day and walk the footsteps, and everything comes to life around you. That’s kind of what’s happened. Everything’s just come to life the way we pictured it.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.