By Erika Wolf

Tucked away at the far end of a strip mall on Walter Reed Road, past the frosted glass doors, is a long line of gussied-up customers waiting to be seated at one of the cherry wood tables or cozy leather booths flanked by murals of Italian land- and cityscapes. Peruse a menu and you'll find authentic dishes from every region of Italy, an extensive wine list and a decadent offering of classic desserts like cannoli and tiramisu.

Little Italy Pizzeria & Restaurant is one of Fayetteville foodies' best-kept secrets. It isn't a secret due to snobbery, however, but more as a result of the owners' knack for choosing smart but somewhat counterintuitive locations.

"We have a lot of loyal customers, but the majority of our business comes through word of mouth," says Antonella Scibilia, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Giuseppe, who does all the cooking.

Though Little Italy has been around for the past five years, the Scibilias have been growing their loyal customer base for much longer. The couple, native Sicilians, first moved to Fayetteville in the mid-1990s with the goal of opening Roma Pizza, a casual Italian restaurant. They quickly found what seemed to be the perfect location on Person Street, in the heart of downtown.

Then the young couple began hearing more about the downtown area's reputation.

"The neighborhood was really rough," Antonella says. "Everyone thought we were crazy to open a restaurant downtown back then." But the Scibilias had chosen the restaurant's location for its proximity to the courthouse, and they had chosen well.

"We did really good business," Antonella says. "Everyone going to the courthouse needed a place to eat, and we were one of the only places around."

They sold Roma Pizza in 2005, right when downtown Fayetteville began flourishing with boutiques, art galleries, yoga studios and trendy restaurants. Everyone thought the Scibilias were crazy yet again, but Antonella and Giuseppe wanted to open something a bit fancier, something that had more of their personal flair.

They had earned the right to show off their culinary chops. Both Antonella and Giuseppe had grown up in restaurants, and Italian cooking was in their blood.

In the 1960s, Antonella's parents had left Sicily for New York City, where they promptly opened a restaurant in Brooklyn. A few years later, Antonella was born.

When Antonella was 16, a friend of her father's returned from a trip to North Carolina and suggested that the family move down South. "They really need Italian food in North Carolina," the man said.

The family took his advice and relocated to the small town of Buies Creek, where they served up authentic Italian cuisine to folks mostly affiliated with Campbell University. It took Antonella some time to adjust to the culture shock, but she slowly forgot about Brooklyn, and her affinity for North Carolina grew.

A couple of years after Antonella's family arrived in Buies Creek, a 20-year-old chef newly arrived from Sicily via Brooklyn came to work at the restaurant. The young man was Giuseppe, and he and 18-year-old Antonella quickly fell in love. After marrying, they decided to strike out on their own, and that's when they hatched the plan to move to Fayetteville and open Roma Pizza.

By the time the Scibilias sold Roma Pizza and began planning to open a fancier restaurant, they had been dreaming of moving to Myrtle Beach, S.C. But one weekend when Giuseppe was in Myrtle Beach scouting locations, Antonella drove around Fayetteville doing the same. The Scibilias now had two school-aged sons, Francesco and Giancarlo, and Antonella had been worrying more and more about uprooting them.

It was during that anxious drive around Fayetteville that Antonella found the strip mall on Walter Reed Road. She immediately had a good feeling about it, even though, like the Roma Pizza location, it seemed counterintuitive.

When Giuseppe came back from Myrtle Beach, Antonella took him to the strip mall and he agreed that it was the perfect location. Cape Fear Valley Medical Center was close by, and the Scibilias knew their gut feelings had led them to the right place yet again.

Today, Little Italy indeed has the personal flair the Scibilias were hoping to one day express. Antonella did all the decorating, choosing warm, rosy colors to give the restaurant a homey, family feel. The murals on the walls, she explains proudly, are blown-up photographs she took herself on summer vacations in Italy. In the kitchen, Giuseppe whips up complicated dishes like whole red snapper and spicy seafood fra diavolo.

He scours farmers markets for the freshest ingredients, and on those same summer vacations in Italy, he's always on the lookout for new dishes to make his own.

Except for their summer vacations in Italy, Antonella and Giuseppe are at the restaurant nearly every single day, and their sons, now teenagers, help out after school and on the weekends.

"When people hear how much time we spend here, they feel sorry for us, but we love it. We're here together as a family every day," Antonella says. "Plus, we consider a lot of our customers friends."

It's the combination of the Scibilias' genuine hospitality and authentic cooking that gives meaning to the name Little Italy and makes one forget all about the strip mall outside.

"People in Italy, they really enjoy life, and you can really feel that when sitting at those little cafes," Antonella says.

"What we really want, more than anything else, is to give that feeling of being in Italy."

Little Italy

  • Where: 1400 Walter Reed Road, No. 130
  • Hours: 11 a.m. - 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. Sunday
  • Prices: Items range from $1.95 for a slice of cheese pizza to $10.25 for a pasta dish to $21.95 for a seafood platter
  • Contact: 910-867-8700