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The Scerra family, owners of The Porthole Deli & Pizzeria. (photo: John Mattera Photography)

The skeletons seated near the door eye me, their bony hands clutching golden spyglasses. Far from feeling unwelcome, I’m enticed — it’s clearly a pirate’s life for owners Antonio and Aracely Scerra at The Porthole Deli and Pizzeria. “What’s the skeletons’ favorite thing on the menu?” I joke to Tony, who furrows his brow in consideration. “Well, Pirate’s Booty!” he happily concludes. “That’s one of our pizzas.”

The skeletons, or “permanent customers” as Tony calls them, are one of many whimsical elements of The Porthole. The tables are barrels, and the dining area is adorned with a floor-to-ceiling mural depicting a ship sailing past San Pedro landmarks. Aracely is the mastermind behind the theme. She wanted the decor to represent San Pedro and pay homage to her spouse, who served for 11 years in the U.S. Coast Guard but has since assumed reserve duties. “Tony loves the ocean, and I wanted to still give him his boat.”

Giving is a way of life for the pair. Tony discovered a love for food and service while working at his family’s bakery, Buscemi’s, in high school. “I realized I loved my customers’ reactions with the product we’d made. I loved being able to serve.” The same sentiment spurred him to enlist in the Coast Guard after graduating from San Pedro High School, where he and Aracely were teenage sweethearts. Altruistic in her own right, Aracely works as a nurse and quality improvement manager for Harbor Community Health Centers. Were there any values they learned in their respective careers that apply to running a restaurant? “Dedication. Devotion,” declares Tony. Aracely chimes in. “Discipline. And customer service.”

Despite demanding jobs, the pair agrees that running The Porthole is one of their most difficult undertakings. The restaurant opened in February of 2020 and was soon strained by the pandemic. In the fall of 2021, staffing issues forced the Scerras to reduce their hours. Aracely was coming in after work, and Tony was at the restaurant all day. “It was stressful. We knew that opening a restaurant wasn’t going to be easy,” reflects Tony, “but it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done!”

Yet quitting is out of the question. Service comes in many forms, and the pair views running The Porthole as another way to give back to their hometown. “One of the reasons we opened a shop in San Pedro is because we wanted to serve our community,” says Aracely. “Any time we consider doing something else, we say no.” 

Tony agrees. “It’s not just a job. The food we’re making isn’t just to bring a dollar in. It’s to bring to our family, our friends, our neighbors. That’s who we’re serving.”

I got to experience that generosity firsthand. Halfway through our chat at the restaurant, Tony discovers I haven’t tried Pirate’s Booty, the permanent customers’ favorite pizza. He raises his eyebrows, wide-eyed and astonished. “Do you want one?” Did I. Aracely quickly excuses herself to the kitchen. She returns moments later, and Tony continues. “It’s got mustard, chicken, pesto, marinara, pastrami, and mozzarella. After it’s cooked, we finish it with spicy brown mustard.”

It’s the altruism of the couple that strikes me most as we continue speaking. They exude it. It’s clear that lives of others — their struggles, their triumphs — govern Tony and Aracely’s philosophy, and it reflects in the way they manage The Porthole. “Our crew is important,” says Aracely. “They’re providing the service, and we want to make sure they’re okay with it.” 

“Anytime we’re considering a new menu item, I ask the crew what they think,” adds Tony. “If they’re content, so are our customers.”

The Pirate’s Booty pizza exemplifies this collaborative spirit. It began with a customer requesting a pastrami pizza, and though it wasn’t on the menu, the crew strove to deliver. The product was good, and with a few tweaks, it became a restaurant staple.  

The Porthole’s menu is exciting and innovative but narrow enough to remain focused and executable. Most dishes are inspired by recipes from Tony’s stepdad. It’s got the classics (would it really be a deli without a roast beef sandwich?), but it also has a few novelties. One such example is the chipotle chicken sandwich, which has shredded chicken marinated in Mexican spices. Texturally akin to pulled pork and with a robust spiciness, it balances flavor with heat. Fans can thank Aracely’s mother, who easily convinced the pair to add her recipe to the menu.

For items that are more standard than ingenious, each element is carefully crafted to ensure that classic doesn’t equal bland. Tony handmakes the meatballs on the meatball sub, and the marinara sauce on the pizzas is herby and rich. Surprisingly, for anyone visiting the restaurant for the first time, Aracely advises sticking to the basics. “Try the cheese,” she suggests, “our sauce is amazing!”

Freshness is the menu’s common thread. A freezer is nowhere to be found at The Porthole, and Aracely and Tony intend to keep it that way. And the proof is in the pizza: The Captain’s Favorite boasts bell peppers, mushrooms, and onions that are delightfully crisp. The care put into the fare is obvious.

As the interview comes to an end, my pizza is ready. Tony opens the box and details the finished product like an artist at an exhibition. He calls special attention to the mustard drizzled in a spiral around the pie. He shuts the box when his eyes light up again — this is something I’d gotten used to by now — and offers me some cheesecake to go with my meal. When I get home, I greedily crack open my spoils. Mustard and all, the pizza is downright delicious. I can see why it’s Tony’s favorite. spt

The Porthole Deli & Pizzeria is located at 2223 S. Pacific Ave. For more info or to place an order, call (310) 548-6809 or visit theportholedeliandpizzeria.com.

Nadia Nizetich