Learn about Pizza Casa’s 50 year history

The majority of restaurants fail in this country, therefore, it should come as no surprise that few eateries in the South Sound celebrate 25 year anniversaries, let alone 50 or greater. Locally, the Hob Nob, the Harvester and The Spar in Old Town Tacoma represent places nearing their 80 year anniversaries, but those blowing out the candles have little connections to the past considering the original owners and their families long disappeared from the local landscape.

One place, however, or better yet, one family passed the 50-year mark in 2008 still serving the same recipes to fourth generation diners – possibly the only restaurant with such lineage left in the local area. Tucked at the south end of Ponder’s Corner in Lakewood, Pizza Casa stares one more recession in the face feeling they’ve been there, done that. Built on the shoulders of Nello Grassi and his wife, Kathryn, and now continued by their son Dan, the Pizza Casa, which caters to the rich and elite of Gravelly Lake Drive, as well as the common man everywhere else, truly embodies a dining tradition – all inside a cozy place still illuminated by the light fixtures Nello Jr. built and with the same retro cocktail placemats dating back to opening day.

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Nello Grassi, born in 1916, grew up in Carbonato, Wash., the son of a coal miner who emigrated in the 19th century from Lucca, Italy. Nello was an industrious young man who came to Tacoma during his childhood growing up on South 54th Street. He worked as a teenager at the Community Garage, but once on his own went into both the restaurant business and the car business for himself.

As World War II heated up Nello opened the Polar Bear restaurant at Ninth and Commerce in downtown Tacoma, and he started Grassi Motors (now owned by Nello’s son, Dale) on South Tacoma across from the present day B&I. Then in the early 1950s, he opened Hamburger Haven where the present day Homestead Restaurant resides for his wife Kathryn to run.

Nello met Kathryn after his partner in the Polar Bear Club hired her to waitress. Kathryn grew up in Castle Rock, and after Nello passed away in 1986 she continued to run Pizza Casa until she sold to Dan in the late 1990s.

After closing the Polar Bear in 1958, Nello saw his opportunity to bring his mother, Pia’s, recipes to the attention of the South Sound by opening Pizza Casa in suburban Lakewood along the Pacific Highway in the shadow of Interstate 5 then under construction.

“He loved cooking,” Dan Harris says of his father. “My grandmother Pia was a fantastic cook, and he wanted to share her recipes in the atmosphere of friends. He was very gregarious – there was never a meal in our home when my father didn’t bring someone home to enjoy it.”

Those recipes remain a secret – not even the cooks know them, says Mary Grassi, Dan’s sister-in-law who for many years managed the restaurant two nights a week. Dan prepares and stores the ingredient mixes in advance and the cooks process the rest from there.

When Dan took over the business from his mother, he was shocked to learn the recipes weren’t written anywhere.

“For the first two weeks I had to follow my mother around writing down how she made everything,” he laughs.

Pizza Casa’s spaghetti and pizza recipes remain squirreled away in a secret location Dan holds dear.