1841 Tamiami Trl N, Naples, FL
NAPLES — Pizza sounds simple.
Start with soft dough, add sauce and cheese, some miscellaneous meats and vegetables. Then, bake it all to ooey-gooey deliciousness and enjoy, preferably with cola or beer.
But if it was actually easy to make a mouthwatering pizza, it wouldn’t be so difficult – or so gratifying – to finally find the perfect pie.
If it was actually easy, there wouldn’t be a reason to visit Mama Mia’s.
In a time – and a town – where businesses often start strong but falter fast, Mama Mia’s owners Erminio and Joesphine Iantosca have been rolling the dough and spreading the sauce for 35 years. The couple is Italian-born, Boston-raised and their pizza is unabashedly New York-style, with light and flaky slices that are ideal for folding over and gobbling up with impunity.
But it’s not the secret to the restaurant’s success. Or, at least, it’s not the only one. Erminio quickly lists why Mama Mia’s continues to flourish, and it’s a standard checklist for any small business owner: long hours, a consistently good product and loyal customers.
“This business is like a marriage,” he explains. “Sometimes you got a good day. Sometimes you got a bad day. You just got to stick with it.”
Josephine is nowhere to be seen as he relates this bit of wisdom, but it’s almost certain she would have something to add. The couple started dating as East Boston-area teenagers and married in their early 20s, moving to Naples after Erminio visited the area on vacation and decided he liked it.
In Boston, Erminio worked at a pizza place – the Pizza Pad – and discovered it was his calling. The then-owner told him he needed to learn how to toss a pizza, and if he couldn’t learn it in two weeks, to give up. Erminio went home and practiced with a wet dish towel, mastering the act in four days.
The owner then gave his young charge another bit of advice.
“Then he told me, ‘Guess what. If you stick with it, someday, you’ll be a success,’” Erminio recalls.
In Naples, Erminio took a job in construction and looked for a suitable place to open his own pizza parlor, ultimately finding a spot in the Moorings Plaza, a small strip mall. Since Josephine was three months pregnant with the first of their three children, daughter Kristina, it seemed appropriate to call the restaurant something that would reflect that, and on Feb. 23, 1975 – Erminio’s 23rd birthday – Mama Mia’s was born.
Josephine, who worked at the Naples Social Security Office, didn’t quit her day job. Instead, she came in on lunch breaks and after work to help out. She marvels at that schedule now.
“Plus, I was pregnant,” she says. “Now, I can’t even do this.”
Although, of course, she can and does. Josephine, like Erminio, is always at Mama Mia’s, usually joined by their two sons, Erminio Jr. and Joseph. Also frequently behind the counter is a longtime employee who the Iantoscas simply call Fabio, although that’s not his real name; Fabio seems to have no complaints.
Nor do few others who come to Mama Mia’s. On a recent afternoon, a pizza patron made sure to stop and to tell Josephine the restaurant serves delicious, authentic New York-style pizza, and he should know – he’s from there. He spoke about the restaurant’s pizza with such pride, warmth and familiarity, it was as if he ate there all the time.
A regular, right? Nope, Josephine said. Merely another patron, moved to poetry by their pizza.
It was just such besotted customers who helped Mama Mia’s succeed, outlasting competitors. Many of the restaurant’s first patrons were Naples High School kids, students on their lunch breaks or hanging out. That gave way to include married couples and families with kids. Then the Naples High kids became the married couples and the families with kids.
“They all liked the pizza,” Josephine says.
Now the Naples High kids’ kids are their customers, as well as the man from New York, and a whole lot of other people, too. On game nights, the restaurant is overflowing, all the red vinyl booths full and the tables arranged in confusing configurations. At noon on weekdays, the parking lot is packed, as businesspeople, police officers and ladies who lunch cram into the eatery for a sub, salad or – what else? – pizza.But Mama Mia’s success can’t be solely the result of the Neapolitan pizza passion or, as Erminio noted, hard work and a consistent product.
Like the secret to creating a perfect pizza, there’s something else in the mix and it’s absolutely the Iantoscas. Erminio arrives at 7 a.m. every day to make the sauce and dough, and oversees the ovens on the restaurant’s busiest nights. Josephine handles the front counter and knows how to do almost everything else; she has resisted the sauce and dough-making, she admits, figuring it would only add up to another responsibility.
The mention of retirement only makes Josephine roll her eyes. After 35 years of making pizza, who knows what the future will bring?
“Probably another 35 more,” Erminio says.