The red, green and white colors of the Italian flag wave a greeting at every customer who steps through the doors of Santora’s Pizzeria in Ocoee.
The interior of the authentic Italian restaurant features patches of hand-painted classical bricks, complete with string lights stretching from corner to corner of the ceiling. Pictures of the Santora family dating as far back as the 1800s adorn the walls.
If one were to look closely enough to observe the smaller details, the etched signatures of Debra and Justin from March 21, 2017, would be recognized.
Santora’s Pizzeria is easily recognized with its comforting charm and amicable ambiance, but what most don’t know is the recently reopened storefront has a long, emotional and tumultuous history.
IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK
In 1880, Anthony Santora’s great grandfather, Antonio Santora, migrated to America from Naples, Italy, bringing with him family traditions and recipes.
One of his favorite traditions was gathering the family for dinner to enjoy his one-of-a-kind pizza sauce.
In 2009, Santora opened his first restaurant using his grandfather’s traditional recipes and signature sauce in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri.
Since then, Santora has garnered more than 20 years of experience in the industry. He has owned five pizza places, sold his family’s sauce in a multitude of grocery stores, and has bought and sold many restaurants.
Although the food industry has always been a hobby for him, it was never a true moneymaker.
Santora, now 42, started his own construction business and settled in the Lake Nona area.
It was January 2023 when he first laid eyes on Franco’s Pizza on Facebook Marketplace.
“I’m always keeping an eye out for restaurant stuff on there,” he said. “It’s a passion project for me. … I didn’t really do anything with it at first, but I kept looking at it. It kept popping up, and I couldn’t figure out why it was sitting there and didn’t have anyone snatching it up. So many other pizza places pop up and then get sold just like that. I wasn’t taking it seriously at the time, especially because they were asking so much money for it when it didn’t look to be in the greatest condition or location.”
Santora did not visit Franco’s Pizza in person until about three weeks before he bought it.
“I came in kind of like a secret customer, and I didn’t tell people who I was until the broker recognized me, called the owner and told him,” he said. “The place was rough and falling apart. The people seemed unhappy, and there was negative cash flow. Then, I met the people and started to learn their stories.”
One employee has been washing dishes in the building for almost 30 years. He has seen every change of ownership.
Franco’s Pizza has been around for about 23 years with three different owners. The last, Debra Nix, worked at the establishment for 17 years before purchasing it. Before becoming Franco’s Pizza, the building was a Pizza Hut.
Nix, 36, died in 2019 after battling cancer.
After three years, her husband, Justin, decided to sell.
“Every time I would come in, the employees would start to come out and share bit by bit of their story here,” Santora said. “Everyone knew the story about Debra Nix. She was an employee who originally wanted the place. When the previous owner got ready to sell it, they gave her the first opportunity to buy the place. It was her dream. I didn’t know how I would go about coming in here and taking over the place with all the history and emotion. I was very conflicted. The husband didn’t want to sell the place, because he felt like it was a betrayal to his wife, and the employees were all just here trying to honor her memory.”
Santora began to talk to his wife, Pilar, about buying the business, but she was 100% against it. He walked away.
“I just kept coming up here and eating and talking to the people,” he said. “Something was drawing me. It finally occurred to me one day that it had to be me (who) bought this place, because I knew that I would find a way to preserve it. I did not want to take the chance of someone else getting it and wiping it out completely.”
Santora bought Franco’s Pizza July 5.
A FRESH START
At first, Santora didn’t plan on changing a thing.
“I was going to leave it and run it how it was,” he said. “I was just going to sit back and watch how it was run, and everybody was cool with that. After a few days, I started noticing more, bigger stuff that I missed that was broken. There were problems with the plumbing and the electrical. I decided I wasn’t going to just not do it. I had to improve it.”
The business was open July 6, 7 and 8. The eatery remained closed July 9 and 10, and reopened Tuesday, July 11.
Over the span of two days, Franco’s Pizza had a serious makeover.
The walls were completely repainted, now sporting the signature Italian flag with the hand-painted classic bricks peeking out.
The ceiling was redone, and new lights were in the process of being installed. Items were ripped out and replaced. The entire restaurant was cleaned from top to bottom.
Santora made some changes to the menu. In addition to pizza, Santora’s offers wings, subs, pasta, salad, ice cream and beer.
To elevate the dining experience, bread service was added to the tables, and staff now offers to add salt, pepper and cheese to food items table-side.
Things were looking up. And then chaos struck.
When Santora was out of town for his construction business, two former cooks quit. With no help, the establishment was forced to close for two months.
Franco’s Pizza reopened as Santora’s Pizzeria the first day of November.
“I don’t know if I ever intended to reopen it again,” Santora said. “It was supposed to be a fun experience, and it went downhill very quickly. There was a lot of anger and hurt feelings. Eventually, I decided to reopen, but I knew it couldn’t be Franco’s anymore. I changed the branding to Santora’s Pizzeria. I only brought back one of the old employees, which caused a lot of drama. The guy who has been here for almost 30 years. It’s been a huge ordeal, but I think it’s been worth it. Everyone (who) has come in here since has given us nothing but raves. The people love the atmosphere and say it feels like home.”
While Santora is excited to start this next chapter, he wants to recognize all of the great things that were done before him at Franco’s, as well as preserve the memory of Nix.
The first day the business opened, Santora’s Pizzeria donated the first $500 in sales to a cancer society in Nix’s honor.
“For the past two months, we have learned a lot from the community and some of Debra’s close friends how much she meant to the community and this restaurant,” Santora wrote on Facebook. “I even had the pleasure of meeting her daughter. She told us a lot of great stories, and she said her mother would have been very happy with what we have done with the place.”
Although Santora already has overcome many obstacles, the business continues to face one of its biggest challenges: lack of staff.
With only one other employee who can make pizza, it has been difficult for Santora’s Pizzeria to offer its full list of menu items.
Santora’s son, Anthony, 12, comes in to help when he gets out of school.
The other children, Aubriella, 6; Alaniia, 4; and Auria, 1; are not yet old enough.
Besides family, there are only four other employees.
Santora said the establishment is hiring in front and back of the house positions.
Currently, the restaurant is only open for dinner.
Santora hopes with more staff he is able to open the eatery back up during the day.
Santora will be working with Kimberly Holland, a former employee and one of Nix’s dear friends, to ensure the business keeps Nix’s memory alive for as long as he has the place.
Holland will be heading all Santora’s Pizzeria’s charitable events.
Monday, Jan. 8, was the fifth anniversary of Debra’s death.
“I know Anthony has done so many things that Debra would have loved,” Holland said. “The renovation is amazing and really shows how great that place could be with some love put into it. Anthony Santora has the same passion for that business that Debra did for Franco’s. I know he is going to take that restaurant to much deserved success for years to come.”
The Nixes’ signatures will remain on the wall of Santora’ Pizzeria as a constant tribute.
“I got into the restaurant business when I was about 18, and what I’ve learned about this business is that it’s a positive business,” Santora said. “I don’t mean money-wise, but I mean fulfilling-wise. When you serve someone in a positive way, they reward you with a positive reaction. I love lighting up people’s faces with something we create. You get addicted to that positive energy."
News Editor Annabelle Sikes was born in Boca Raton and moved to Orlando in 2018 to attend the University of Central Florida. She graduated from UCF in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in sociology. Her past journalism experiences include serving as a web producer at the Orlando Sentinel, a reporter at The Community Paper, managing editor for NSM Today, digital manager at Centric Magazine and as an intern for the Orlando Weekly.