Where others might have seen conflict, Nonna Maria's Ristorante & Pizzeria owner Frank Palazzolo saw opportunity. He melded his diverse passions into his Oracle restaurant, which doubles as an art gallery.
Having grown up living in a home in the same building as his parents' restaurant on the outskirts of Chicago, Palazzolo wanted to open an eatery but also spend as much time as possible painting pop art portraits.
When he decided to move from the Chicago area in the late 1990s, he considered returning to his ancestral homeland of Sicily, where he spent seven years going to school. But he was hesitant to leave the United States.
Instead of making difficult choices, Palazzolo found that he could have it all.
When visiting relatives here, he was struck by how much Oracle resembled Sicily.
"The mountains look just like they are in Sicily. They have prickly pear cactuses just like in Sicily," he said. "The terrain is very similar. I moved out here and felt like I was in Sicily, but was still in the States. The best of both worlds."
Palazzolo moved to Oracle and opened Nonna Maria's, named for his grandmother. And as he built the restaurant as a strip mall takeout joint, he continued painting, using his artwork to decorate the restaurant's walls when he moved the operation to its current location, at 2161 Rockliff Blvd. in Oracle, in 2005.
Using acrylic and oil paints, Palazzolo creates portraits of celebrities dining on pizza and pasta. His subjects range from U.S. presidents to the Marx Brothers and characters from the film "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."
"The thing about it is, it's a part of me. Being able to combine the two things works," Palazzolo said. "I think that's the reason why it works. People ask me why I always paint pizza and pastas, and it's because that's what I see. I paint a lot of great people enjoying it."
The chef and owner, Palazzolo, 43, runs the restaurant with his wife, Angelina, who also grew up in a family restaurant in the outskirts of Chicago.
The restaurant boasts a fountain and columns out front, and the interior, which seats 75, has a polished-concrete floor. The patio offers views of Picacho Peak and Mount Lemmon.
Palazzolo and his 15 employees serve up an array of pizza, pastas, salads, sandwiches and calzones, as well as Italian wine, beer and soft drinks. Most of the recipes come from Palazzolo's grandmother, Maria Balatamenta, who died in 1999 at age 97.
Raymond Santoro, a 54-year-old postal employee who eats at the restaurant two or three times a week, said it reminds him of the Italian food in his native upstate New York.
"It was astounding to find really good, homemade Italian food right around the corner from me," said Santoro, who lives in Oracle. "It's hard to find legitimate Italian food in Southern Arizona."
Santoro adores Palazzolo's artwork.
"His art is the first thing you see as you walk in," Santoro said. "I've got some favorites. I keep asking him to paint Kirk and Spock eating pizza. He's got a lot of artwork with famous people eating pizza, and I love walking around and observing it. People are surprised to know that the guy who made the meal is the guy who painted all these pictures."
Each painting takes as long as three months from sketches to completion. Palazzolo rotates his artwork in the dining room. He sells his 16-by-20-inch paintings, which start at $750.
His technique was self-taught, and he says his love for art was sparked by drawing basics from nuns in Catholic school.
"When I was in second grade, I was already drawing at an adult level," Palazzo said.
Wes Stolsek, a 54-year-old Catalina real estate agent, is also a regular.
"I like the openness of that place," he said. "Watching the sunset. Watching the scenery. It's peaceful, has great food and is in a great setting. I can see what motivates his artwork."
Palazzolo said he finds time to paint by sleeping as little as possible.
"I typically sleep three or four hours a night. It drives my wife crazy," Palazzolo said. "It's something I've been doing since I was growing up. When you live at a restaurant you never sleep."
If you go
• Nonna Maria's Ristorante & Pizzeria.
• Where: 2161 Rockliff Blvd.
• Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.
• Price range: Pizzas range from $10 to $23. Sandwiches are less than $10 and specialties are less than $20.
• Phone: 1-520-896-3522.
• Online: nonnamarias.com
Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or email@example.com