AHWATUKEE, AZ — The Ahwatukee community has rallied to support a small business after a beloved restaurateur and chef unexpectedly passed away.
Mario Caputo spent two decades serving up pizzas, smiles, and advice inside Bell'Italia Pizzeria, near Chandler Boulevard and the Interstate 10.
The Italian immigrant was known for his generosity and propensity to pop out from the kitchen and sit down with customers for a drink and conversation.
"It’s our home away from home basically," said Joe Lanzo. "We come here for the friendship."
Lanzo has been a regular at the cozy restaurant since it opened in 2002.
"Mario would come out of the kitchen. He would sit down, pull up a chair. They would have to come out and pull him back to the kitchen area," said Lanzo. "He made you feel like you were family. He really did."
After an unexpected tragedy, Caputo’s relatives are experiencing that sense of family.
"Essentially his heart stopped," said Sam Caputo, Mario's oldest son.
On February 7, Mario was chatting with his wife of 39 years when he collapsed. Paramedics rushed him to the emergency room, but he did not make it.
Once the shock and sorrow began to subside, family realized they were staring down medical bills and funeral costs.
"It’s a beautiful thing. Since his passing, so many customers have reached out," said Sam. "I've gotten hundreds of text messages and phone calls. All of them ask, 'What can I do to help?'"
The family created a GoFundMe account to help cover the costs and help Mario's widow and protect the business, already hurting from COVID-closures, from going under.
In less than a week the community donated more than $21,000.
"Just an outpouring of love," said Sam.
"We are overwhelmed by the community support," said Adi Kurti, manager of the restaurant.
"The community has stepped up and given back," said Lanzo. "When you build good friendships, those friendships, true friendship will be there when you need it."