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'Part of the family': NJ pizzeria donates 4,000 meals to needy amid the pandemic

Calabria Restaurant and Pizzeria in Livingston, New Jersey, has become so much more than a place for great food.
/ Source: TODAY

Calabria Restaurant and Pizzeria in Livingston, New Jersey was feeling the crunch when they were forced to shut down indoor dining and pivot to takeout only during the coronavirus pandemic. But despite their own struggles, and the worry for all of the people they employ and their families, this hub of the community has managed to donate over 4,000 meals during a time when many people are still worried about how to feed their families.

The Ottaiano family immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1977 and eventually opened up their own pizzeria, Calabria. Now, after 40 years in business, they are not only keeping their doors open but also extending their gratitude and good fortune to their community by feeding those in need, no questions asked.

In November, the restaurant posted a message on social media that astonished customers and caused them to reach out with their own offers to help.

"If you are not working/not getting a paycheck/struggling to make ends meet and run out of food or necessities...please don't let yourself or your kids go to sleep with an empty stomach," read the message from cousins Gabriella and Giuseppe, Jr. Ottaiano who now run the restaurant alongside their fathers, Dino and Giuseppe, Sr.

"When you come to Calabria's we like to make everyone feel at home," Gabriella Ottaiano said on TODAY. "And you leave with a smile. And you feel part of the family."

"In Italy, my grandfather used to be in the food market," she said, explaining the family's history. "So you sell fruits and vegetables and stuff. And then they came here. And they started a pizzeria."

Ottaiano got married one year ago, but COVID-19 put her plans to honeymoon in Italy on hold — she was told at the end of the night at her wedding that her flights were canceled. A week later, the family was forced to close their dining room. They pivoted and managed to stay afloat by selling takeout family meals — for $39.99 the meals can feed six people.

She was worried not just for her family's business, but for her 40 employees who rely on the restaurant.

"Forty employees, and they all have kids, they all have families," she said. "So it's you're not just fighting for yourself, you're fighting for everybody else. You know, it's scary."

The family meals they sold kept their own restaurant family going. But that wasn't enough. The cousins knew they also needed to make their community a priority and that it was their time to step up.

"If you need help, if you need anything, any food, don't go to sleep without feeding your family, your kids," said Ottaiano. "It's our time to give back," she said, speaking about the restaurant's 40 years of success. "And we're here. You don't need to say anything. If you're embarrassed, we'll deliver it."

Since they put out the word in November, the restaurant has donated over 4,000 meals to people in need. The Apostles House, a shelter for women and children in New Jersey, was especially grateful for the warmth of their good meals and the knowledge that their neighbors had their backs.

"People are having to decide whether they should spend their money on the rent or to put food on the table and so we are grateful that they're responding," Tashea Carless, development director at The Apostles House told TODAY, saying how much the children there have loved the delicious pizza.

Ottaiano knows how much good food and a neighbor's helping hand can mean when things are tough.

"That's the bottom line," she said. "What we're here to do is just putting a smile on people's face during this difficult time."