This article appears in the February issue of 400 Life.
Looking out over their 16-acre farm in far south Forsyth, Maria Fundora and her son, Pepe, co-owners of Casa Nuova Italian Restaurant, reflect that family and loyalty is grown out of hard work and good food.
Over the last two decades, the Fundora family has been on a mission to serve the north Fulton, south Forsyth County community at Casa Nuova restaurant with traditional Italian cooking and an atmosphere that takes you to a simpler, better place.
For this issue of 400 Eats, the FCN sat down with the Fundora family at their south Forsyth farm and restaurant to get a better picture of how they grew their Italian cuisine empire out of a dream and a gamble.
‘Let’s go back to our roots’
After successfully owning and operating multiple Italian restaurants in the Atlanta area for years, in 1996 Maria and Tony Fundora retired to their property along the Fulton-Forsyth County line, thinking that they had cashed out of the restaurant business for good.
But by 1997, a new idea had formed in the Fundora household, to get back to their roots and grow a restaurant that captured the heart and soul of fine Italian dining, right in their backyard.
“We opened in 1998,” Maria Fundora said, “and Tony said, ‘Let’s go back to our roots. Let’s go back to doing a small place where we actually know what you like when you come in.’”
She said that their idea was to open a local Italian spot in the developing area, with a romantic Italian vibe, where regulars could come in and be greeted like family.
“We took a risk and didn’t know whether it was going to be successful,” she said.
But time has proven that their risk paid off and even in the fledgling, still-rural area, Casa Nuova began to grow and flourish.
‘You control the quality’
But in 2003, well into the run of their success, the Fundora family again decided to take a risk and try something new with their restaurant, converting some of their land into beds for vegetables, to see what would happen.
“We started 14 years ago with one acre, and said, ‘Let’s see how it goes,’ it [grew like] gangbusters. It did awesome,” Maria said.
“The thinking was we could try to add some of our own produce to the menu ... because produce prices were in a spike and Dad was not OK with that,” said Pepe Fundora, Maria’s son, and co-owner of Casa Nuova. “We had some space and you grow your own, you control the quality.”
In the years since, the Fundora family has grown that one acre into a fully-working farm that provides about 90 percent of the produce that they use on any given day.
“Acreage wise, this year we harvested about 16 acres,” Maria said.
“But there’s no telling how much we actually produced,” Pepe said.
The Fundora’s said that they work through the year with a rolling harvest, planting and harvesting squash, zucchini, corn, herbs, greens and thousands upon thousands of ripe juicy tomatoes from seed to table in their different seasons.
In fact, Pepe said that 90 percent of their produce is grown from seeds that they cultivate and grow in their greenhouse. In total about 90 percent of the produce used at Casa Nuova is grown at their family farm less than a mile down the road.
“Being able to control when you pick, when you plant, enhances your dish,” Pepe said.
In addition to all the vegetables that they are able to serve in the restaurant, Maria said that they can and freeze some of their heartier vegetables like tomatoes, corn, peppers and okra to get them through the off-season.
And for vegetables that don’t do well in the freezer, she said that in the off-season they still source their produce from local retailers like Leonard’s Farmers Market and at larger local markets in the Atlanta area.
‘It is just not about the money’
On the outside, the restaurant itself isn’t fancy, just an Italian restaurant at the corner of a south Forsyth strip mall. Even on the inside, your first thought might be about the small rectangular dining room. But when you sit down at one of their 22 tables, lit in a moody glowing aesthetic and accented on all sides with seasonal ornaments and arrangements, you feel at home.
“This is an extension of our house,” Pepe said, while walking through the rows of tables. “When you come into the restaurant, it’s like you’re my long-lost cousin or you’re my new family member that I didn’t know I had.”
That homey, family aesthetic extends beyond their decor, Maria said, explaining their goal is to make sure that each customer leaves Casa Nuova feeling as if they got a great meal for a great price.
“Coming from where my roots are, I feel that it’s always better to give, to have a sense of community, to give back,” she said. “We have to make a profit to stay in business. But that’s, that’s just a part of our driving force.”
She said that while they might not reap the short-term financial benefits that raising prices and expanding could theoretically bring, they have gained a customer base of happy, loyal people that are more friends and family than customer.
“It is just not about the money,” she said.
What it is about, both Fundora’s agreed, is the comfort and happiness that they see their meals bring people on a daily basis, whether it be from a quick lunch of linguini with white clam sauce (Maria’s favorite) or the classic Italian veal ossobuco that Pepe and Tony lovingly cook together. The food, the ingredients, the experience are key to them.
“I think that Italian food has a sense of family, and everybody wants family,” Maria said. “When you come to a place where you feel that, you come back ... we strive for that.”