A legacy of pizza: Longtime friends bring Italian cuisine to the ‘Boro

Julia Fechter

It all started with a boat. Joseph Cortese, founder of Little Italy Pizzeria, made the journey to America along with many other Italian immigrants in the 1960s.

Cortese immigrated to the country when he was 10 years old. He could not speak English when he arrived, so he started working as a dishwasher at a pizza restaurant.

After turning 18, he owned his first pizza restaurant in Florida during the 1970s.

It was not until 1991 that the Cortese family would move to Athens, Georgia where his and others’ efforts have given rise to a family-wide Italian food operation that spans the cities of Athens, Gainesville, Auburn and Tuscaloosa, and now, Statesboro, too.

His son, Frank Cortese, has helped bring the eighth iteration of Little Italy to Statesboro.

Moving on up

Frank is a day manager and co-owner for the Statesboro Little Italy, and Daniel Bathurst is the other co-owner and night manager for the restaurant. He is originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but lived in Athens for about 20 years before moving to Statesboro.

Bathurst has eight years of experience working at the Athens Little Italy with Joseph Cortese. He managed another Little Italy in Commerce, Georgia for two years before starting to help out at the Little Italy in downtown Athens with Frank for 10 years.

Fast forward to now, Bathurst and Frank had been talking about opening up another Little Italy together for two years.

“He was in a situation where he couldn’t do it at the time because he just had a kid,” Bathurst said. “And I’d just had a kid, so then, as time moved on, we had free time to talk about it and come [to Statesboro] to check out places.”

When they did have the time to discuss things, Bathurst approached Frank about advancing at Little Italy.

“He came to me one day and said he wanted to do something different and move up and I said, ‘The next step is for you to open up a restaurant,’” Frank said.

Frank told Bathurst that there was no more opportunities to move up at the Athens locations (there are four).

“And then, it was my idea to come to Statesboro because I had a couple of friends that went to school here and we would just come hang out here and here we are,” Frank said.

Bathurst moved to Statesboro three months ago, but Frank still lives in Athens and commutes once or twice a week to Statesboro.

Making the move

While Bathurst may bear the title of co-owner, he still wants to work in the front in his day-to-day responsibilities at Little Italy.

“He [Frank] is in here at six in the morning. I get here at 5:00 p.m. and work until three or four in the morning, so we definitely put the hours in,” Bathurst said. “We’re definitely working business owners…he [Frank] is back there washing dishes now.”

Bathurst believes that there is a comfortable knowledge in seeing a restaurant run the way one desires.

“Working at a successful pizza pace for so long, you kind of know what it takes. It requires the owner to be in there [the restaurant] every day, and people know him,” Bathurst said.

That type of involvement makes a substantial difference for businesses that are more independently-owned. For those establishments, a restaurant’s name can also be its brand, Bathurst added.

Being that involved as a small business owner can also come at the cost of spending time with family, though.

“It’s not an easy thing to have kids and work and try to open a business, especially when you work 12 to 13 hours a day, and I work at night,” Bathurst said. “There’s definitely a sacrifice being made.”

He prefers to look at the bigger picture rather than the short-term implications of his work efforts.

“Years down the line, I’m going to be better off. My boys are going to be better off,” Bathurst added.

Building food and booths

One factor that distinguishes Little Italy from other restaurants is how its employees make everything by hand.

The handmade ingredients include dough, sauce, cheese, the cold cuts for sandwiches, the chicken breading and pasta.

“There’s a lot of work and prep that goes into what we do. I think when people eat the food, they know it, and they appreciate that,” Bathurst said.

Bathurst, Cortese and others had to do a large amount of of planning in order to make the new Little Italy have more of the features that they wanted in a pizza place.

“It’s nice to have a patio. We don’t have a patio at the one in Athens. We don’t have this much space, and the equipment is new,” Bathurst said.

Bathurst and Cortese had a bare parking lot on which to build the new restaurant. While a team hired to handle the construction, they were still sure to voice their thoughts on the building process.

“We hired people to build it, but we were also here hands on, saying ‘This booth goes here. This goes here, can we do this? Is this legal? Is this not legal?,” Bathurst said. “A lot of days were just trips to the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority, talking to people and seeing what we could do, what we couldn’t do, how far we could push things.”

This back-and-forth process helped them stay compliant with building codes and not waste money.

“You definitely don’t want to invest in something you can’t do, and only be told you can’t do it once it’s already done,” Bathurst added.

Several people, such as Joseph Cortese and several references from the Statesboro and Bulloch County areas, made a consistent observation about Statesboro’s business climate.

It is like what Athens was like 30 years ago. Statesboro will grow like the University of Georgia’s hometown if it follows through with the Blue Mile, Bathurst said.

The Blue Mile was one of the factors that led Bathurst and Cortese to choose the South Main location as Statesboro’s home for Little Italy.

“I’ve been in other cities outside of Athens where I hear people who said ‘Oh, I wanna do this for the city, and that for the city,’ but it never happens, for whatever reason,” Bathurst said. “I think there’s a lot going here in Statesboro behind the Blue Mile thing right now.”

Pulling in other friends

Bathurst was not the only person to move down to Statesboro for the new Little Italy.

Employees Jim Hanley and Richard Hallmark also moved so they could act as day managers when Frank is in Athens.

“That’s what we’re here for. He [Cortese] brought us down and put us here to be here so he doesn’t have to,” Hallmark said.

Hanley has been working for the Cortese family since Joseph Cortese first opened a pizzeria in Athens in 1991.

”I came [from New York] down to Athens to go to school. I ended up going to school for a semester and then, I went in to Peppino’s a couple of times. And I figured, I made pizza in New York, but Joe talked me into working with him,” Hanley said.

As Frank got older, he took over the downtown Little Italy in Athens. In 2011, Hanley took a break from working at Little Italy and moved to Pennsylvania.

Five years later, Frank told Hanley that he was opening up another store, asked if Hanley was interested in coming down to work. Hanley accepted.

Hallmark, on the other hand, did not originally work for Frank, but Frank’s brother instead. He worked at the Little Italy in Gainesville, Georgia, starting around 2005, and then moved to the Commerce location in 2008.

He started working as a welder for a while after that, but he would occasionally work the Georgia Bulldog home games in Athens.

“That’s how he and I kept in touch, even though I was a welder…eventually [in April 2016], I was like, ‘this [welding] job isn’t paying enough. I have a daughter I have to raise,’” Hallmark said.

Frank encouraged Hallmark to come work for him in Athens, so Hallmark agreed and moved to Athens.

“Then, when I was working for him in Athens, he started talking about this Statesboro thing,” Hallmark said. “I was like ‘Since I have a daughter that’s three-years-old, I’d like to get out of Athens and get down to a more small kind of town. This is a college town, too, but it’s not a college town like Athens.”

Hallmark appreciates the overall environment working with Little Italy and Frank.

“They take care of you…All you have to do is do your job, make sure you show up on time. We [he and Hanley] wouldn’t have moved as far as we moved if we didn’t think we would be taken care of,” Hallmark said.

As for Frank, he wants to pass the Little Italy in downtown Athens on to family.

Frank said, “The plan is for my son to take over the Little Italy in Athens. My dad gave it to me, and I’m going to pass it to him.”