A pizza-trade era in Napier ends today with the retirement of chef Tony Larrington-Lewar after 35 years running popular restaurant and takeaway Antonio's.

A former hotel chef, working in kitchens since the age of 16, he's sold the business. He started it in Lower Emerson St in 1979 to fill a gap after finding nothing in New Zealand that could match the pizza he'd come to love while travelling in Italy, and is now possibly unchallenged nationwide for longevity in the pizza game.

There were no big franchise brands when he started out, but he could see them coming and in 1990 moved to the former People's Dairy on the corner of Carlyle and Craven streets (now the Tennyson St extension).

He wanted a point of difference and developed a personal setting, complete with gingham table cloths.

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Well-travelled customers include an Indian couple to whom Antonio's was recommended by neighbours in London, and a Canadian who remarked his son was "right" when he told them "nine years ago" Antonio's had the world's best pizza.

Mr Larrington-Lewar is not Italian, but pretty much lived in Napier all his life, a surprise to some who've heard the varying Italian-accented messages on his answer phone.

Now 70, he believes the biggest point of difference is having everything "home-made". He makes his own sauces and dough every day, and his own pasta icecream, sourcing the ingredients locally.

Wife Janette reckoned it would be difficult to get him talking as the last evening open to the public loomed last night, saying it would be an "emotional" time.

He conceded: "It has been emotional. It's a high-and-low thing, something you've been involved with all that time, and you wonder what you're going to do next."

The restaurant was booked out, and tonight there's a closed private send-off.

Though leaving the business, he's still a pizza lover and at home has something he hasn't had there before: "A pizza oven. I've just purchased one, for entertaining."