By RJ Johnson
Little Italy Restaurante first opened its doors on November 16th, 1984. For owners Spiros and P.J. Gialopsos, the next three and a half decades have been quite the wild ride.
Born in Corfu, the most northwestern island of Greece, Spiros always maintained his affection for the Mediterranean and wanted to bring that love to his new home in Alaska. The young couple navigated the difficult world of starting up a restaurant while simultaneously raising their children in the business. His continued sharing his culture with the city when in 1995 he helped inaugurate the annual Alaska Greek Festival. The proceeds from the festival led to the construction of the world’s northernmost Byzantine style church, connecting Greek-Americans in Alaska with their roots. The following year, the family opened the adjacent 88th Street Pizza.
As the years passed, the couple’s children grew older and started families of their own. Grandchildren became the next generation that was raised in the small fine dining establishment located in South Anchorage. Spiros balanced his time between his family and running the kitchen portion of the restaurant, while P.J. managed the front of the house.
In June of 2017 a fire broke out, damaging major parts of the building, but the couple managed to do what they could to an keep the business afloat with help from a community of friends and family to help them. The tenacious spirit that had helped them through so many lean years once again kept the business going. In the fall of 2018, P.J. decided she had done enough.
“I was ready to sell; I was ready to retire. Last fall, I told Spiro it was time to sell,” she said.
Spiros agreed, and so a realtor was called. The meeting didn’t go exactly as planned. Rather than agreeing to the sale, the realtor convinced P.J. to go in a different direction with the business.
“She took me by the hand, pulled me out that door right there, turned me around and said, ‘What do you see?” I said, ‘The bar, what else?’ She told me I had a license to print money and that I was rolling quarters. She told me I needed to hire a bartender. I said I couldn’t afford one; she told me I couldn’t afford not to have one.” A change in which door was used for entry to the business made a huge difference, and next came the hiring of Terria Vandenhuerk.
The bartender joined the business in September of 2018 and immediately set to work creating an entirely new cocktail program for the restaurant, starting, like a chef would, with the ingredients. “When I first got here, I looked at all the premade stuff and I told P.J. that all of the things I needed her to order, and what to get rid of.” Terria said.
She prefers to make her own bases and got rid of all the promotional bottles of liquor that had been left by distributors over the years. Each day new featured drinks are made that will complement the food menu as well as fit in nicely with what the customers already enjoy.
“I have worked in fine dining and I have worked in casual,” Terria said. “Generally, this is a different crowd than what you will find downtown at say Humpy’s or out in the valley at Palmer City Alehouse. The customer base here enjoys more martini style drinks and classics.”
After the entry door was changed to draw more attention to the bar side, and Terria changed the product being offered, what used to be a largely unused portion of space became an upscale neighborhood bar of sorts. Al, a customer, says, “I would rather go to a bar like this any day, over any normal night spot. I don’t go to nightclubs. People don’t come here just to drink, they come here to have a good time, have conversation, to socialize.”
In January of 2019, after the business had somewhat recovered from the November 30th earthquake, another blow came. While on a trip home to Greece, Spiros passed away from complications due to a stroke. Once again, the community that had supported them for so long rallied around the family and the business to help in their time of need. Seeds that Spiros had planted long away came to be the strength that kept everything moving along. The young man that once answered phones at 88th Street Pizza has now stepped in as head chef. Katrina, who once made pizza at the business next door is taking care of managing and scheduling that kitchen staff. P.J. and Terria are already working on the changes that they have in store for this summer, with another nod to the culture that Spiros loved so much.
“Summer we are putting in a patio!” P.J. said. “I want trees, and I want little lights. I want it like al fresco dining in Europe. In Greece and Italy there was nothing better than sitting outside at night eating and having cocktails at sunset.”
The bar will also be changing their focus to sweet and tropical tastes that will complement warm summer days. Flavors like mango, peach, and coconut will make an appearance, and some already are. The Guava Pineapple Martini is just a taste of what Terria has in store. Made sweet and tart with a mixture of Three Olives Vodka, X-Rated, lime juice, and pineapple, the cocktail could be enjoyed with one of the amazing dishes on the Little Italy menu, or perhaps after as a dessert drink.
Last Sunday was P.J. and Spiros’ 36th wedding anniversary. Though she was not able to celebrate the day with her husband, their children made sure that she felt well loved. As the family and the business navigate whatever challenges are thrown at them, P.J. simply says “We’re gonna do this.”