A passion for pizza has driven John Iriana his entire life. The New Hampshire native was living in Rhode Island when he worked at his first pizza joint at 15 years old, and by the time he was 23, he had moved to Little Rock and opened up a long-standing restaurant of his own.
Thirty-five years later, Iriana’s Pizza has become a beloved part of the downtown Little Rock culture, from its prominent perch in River Market. He’s lucky his wife Shirley loves making pies as much as he does, because she’s been right with him every step of the way, through weeks that often stretches for 70 hours.
“My favorite part of all this is working for myself, and Shirley is here every day for lunch and Friday and Saturday evenings,” explained Iriana. “My two daughters help all the time too, and that really helped us during the tough times of the pandemic. The biggest challenge was staying in the black throughout that time, but we did it.”
Iriana moved to Little Rock after graduating high school. His father was a general agent for John Hancock Insurance and transferred here as John was getting ready to attend college. When John decided to launch Iriana’s Pizza, he started out in the former Continental Bus Lines terminal, just down the street from him.
“When I first opened Iriana’s, downtown was mostly abandoned. I was the original River Market by myself, with the Capitol and Excelsior Hotels being the only things around with any life,” he recalled. “There was nothing downtown entertainment-wise until a year later, when Vino’s opened.
“I looked for a food service establishment, and my original location was a block and a half down, and I spent 19 years there, until Stephens bought the building and turned it into a parking lot.”
Iriana moved into his current location in 2006, moving closer to the heart of the now-bustling nightlife district. He’s developed a sterling reputation for his varieties of pizza and sandwiches (his specialty is a supreme pizza he calls Clean the Floor) that numerous celebrities have found their way into a meal there.
“The biggest was probably Dave Chappelle when he played the Robinson a couple years ago,” he noted. “Sheryl Crow was here with her two kids when she played at Riverfest. We’ve had everyone from Jay Leno to Brent Musberger, Wolf Blitzer to Stevie Ray Vaughn, who came in twice.”
Appropriately for a guy who’s been mastering pizzas for nearly four decades, Iriana takes pride in making his pies with an old-fashioned approach.
“I do it the old way – I don’t use pans and I cook my pizzas,” he explained. “I use the very best cheese, all fresh toppings, all the way grandma and grandpa did back in the day. I’ve had people come here from Sicily and say it’s the best pizza they’ve ever had.”
He also noted a pretty simple way to judge a great pizza, describing the test he gives any new parlor he comes across.
“I always just get a plain old cheese pizza, just to see what the crust is like, what the sauce is like,” he explained. “If you have that base and that base is right, then you can put whatever you want on it and have it be a good pie.”
Spending most days from 6:30 am to 5 pm in the kitchen, Iriana leads his 12-person staff by example. Even after heading home, he is on call and ready to return for any crisis. For some, that might be a grueling pace, but he loves it, and reflects his work ethic in his life philosophy.
“You just have to be honest with people and give them the best you can,” Iriana said. “Always be friendly, nice and kind, and people will reward you with their time.”
Iriana’s Pizza is located at 201 E. Markham St., Ste. 1, Little Rock. Call (501) 374-3656 or visit irianaspizza.com.