HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - Somerville resident Akhtar Farzaie, owner of Bella Pizza, uses the same ingredients as other pizzerias - cheese, oil, dough, seasoning and a hearty tomato sauce - but what sets his pies apart from others is an added ingredient not found in every stainless steel kitchen - charity, and lots of it in every slice.
It's a way of life, and a way of doing business for the Somerville High School graduate (2000). Charity, giving back, helping out the community, from sponsoring athletic teams to giving away free pizzas as birthday gifts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified Farzaie's efforts as he has extended himself even further.
For the past two months, donated pizzas by the hundreds and other Italian meals have been shipped out to Hillsborough locations as well as throughout Somerset and Middlesex counties
Bella Pizza, located at the corner of South Branch Road and South Mountain Avenue is a busy place; Farzaie has had to hire extra help to keep up with the demand.
"I've worked my butt off and done everything I could to make the business grow; any time the community needed me for something, sponsorships, coordinating fund-raisers, charities for athletes, I had the platform, I've been able to do that, and there's lots of good that came from that," Farzaie said.
He had just returned from Tennessee when the pandemic began to impact New Jersey and the rest of the United States.
He had gone there to join with his friend and fellow chef, Charles Oakley, a former player in the National Basketball Association; they prepared 700 meals at a charity event. He and "Oak" met years ago in a pick-up basketball game at the YMCA gym in Somerville. Pictures of the two hang on the wall of the pizzeria.
"So all of the sudden, this pandemic broke out and people were hurting," he said. "I thought to myself, 'I have the pizzeria, I have the kitchen, let's do this.' I thought about people without paychecks, families, waiters and waitresses who lost their jobs. I would want someone to hopefully help me if I was in that situation," he said.
Without anyone asking, he began an outreach. On March 15, he began preparing meals and made deliveries to shut-in senior citizens, followed by kids who had relied on school lunches that were no longer available. He's taken care of entire families that needed help
It hasn't stopped there.
He's handed out 200 coupons for a free pizza to supermarket employees at Shop Rite and Wise.as a thank you to the employees. He drops off food once a week to the SHIP homeless shelter in Somerville and the Ozanon homeless shelter in New Brunswick.
More recently he met with Somerset County Sheriff Darrin Russo and agreed to supply free pizzas throughout the county to help kids celebrate their birthdays; the Sheriff officers deliver the pizza, complete with sirens.
"I told him, 'I'm onboard, let's do that,'" Farzaie said.
He also provided meals that were donated to the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital/Somerset by the Italian-American Police Society of New Jersey.
"It's just a good feeling, I can't explain it," Farzaie said, "but being able to help somebody, even if it's just for the day or five minutes, make them think about something positive, that means a lot to me."