HARLINGEN — A devastating early-morning fire has claimed one of the city’s most popular restaurants, Stefano’s Brooklyn Pizza.

A Harlingen Firefighter observes the charred debris due to a major fire at Stefano’s Brooklyn Pizza restaurant that occurred in the early morning hours Monday. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

The café at 4201 W. Business 83, known for its Italian cuisine, is “going to be a total loss,” said Ruben Balboa, Harlingen assistant fire chief, as he stood before the still-smoldering building Monday morning.

The fire initially was reported at 4:55 a.m., Balboa said, and the restaurant was unoccupied at the time.

“Nobody was in the building at the time of the fire and all our firefighters are good,” Balboa said.

Balboa said once the building is deemed safe to enter, the fire investigation would start, probably later Monday. He said such investigations sometimes take several days but “hopefully they’ll be able to find something out today,” he said, referring to discovering the cause of the blaze.

Established in 2012, Stefano’s Brooklyn Pizza was a perennial winner in the Valley Morning Star’s People’s Choice Awards and was voted Best Italian Food, Best Pizza and Best Caterer earlier this year.

“As you can see it’s a total loss,” said Graham Smith, chef and general manager. “We’re going to have to start over. I mean, of course we’re all gung-ho and want to keep going, absolutely — we will keep going.”

The location originally was a residential home but then was renovated into a café and operated under the names of Sorrento Restaurant, which served Italian cuisine beginning in the 1960s, and then The Lone Star Restaurant, which produced an American menu.

“We started getting notifications from our fire alarms, and by 5:30, I was here,” Smith said.  “It didn’t appear to be this devastating, but quickly, in about 45 minutes, we realized it was totally gone.”

But Stefano’s will continue, at least for now, at its Pharr location, Smith said.

“And that will keep us going, and hopefully, we’ll find another place to start another small location, or a large location,” Smith said. “We’re hoping to rebuild, but we’ll see what happens.

“More than likely you’ve not seen the last of us,” he added.