OUT to LUNCH: Good friends, good food order of day at Mama Mia’s

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By Bethel Poston

When I was about 12 years old, my parents and I went to eat at my favorite cousins’ house. Both boys were older than me, like big brothers. They were Eagle Scouts, and it was fun being with them.

Their mother, Aunt Lois Stephens, was the head cook for the schools in Livingston and an excellent cook herself. We all looked forward to eating with them. I have several of her recipes.

My cousins set up a wire recorder (if you remember this you’re telling your age) in their basement, with the microphone concealed in the upstairs dining room. All the hilarious dinner conversations were recorded, replayed for us and then told they were quickly erased.

The ladies of our Kingston First Baptist Church Sunday school class have a lunch get- together once a month. I told my wife, Carol, that I would like to secretly record their conversations so I could write an “Out to Lunch” article about their lunch.

She nixed that, but she did agree to make notes on everyone’s meal choices on their recent visit to Mama Mia’s in Kingston.

Today’s “Out to Lunch” article is being published five years and one day after my first article on the pizzeria was printed on April 14, 2008. This is my 154th published article.

Mama Mia — Lieselotte “Lottie” O’Brien — was born in Bavaria and emigrated from Augsburg, Germany as a war bride in 1950.

She learned the art of pizza making from her Italian mother-in-law, Dorothy Caccia.

Lottie makes her own pizza dough and 60-80 loaves of French bread for sandwiches each week. They are slow baked for five hours with a container of water in the oven bottom.

Her pizza sauce is homemade, too — a combination of uncooked whole tomatoes, oregano, garlic and crushed red peppers.

Mama’s pizza cornmeal crust is baked in an irreplaceable antique black brick oven brought down from New York.

The sauce for her spaghetti and meatball sandwich is cooked 10 hours in a pot, set in a water pan, like a double boiler. It’s also the same length of time it takes to roast the beef for her subs.

As my sub for this adventure, Carol ordered my favorite — a hoagie. It’s made with Genoa salami, ham, cheese, lettuce and tomato on Mama’s homemade bread, seasoned with Italian dressing.

You can order a half sandwich at lunch, which she did.

Jane McPherson (our Sunday school teacher Sandy’s wife) chose a bowl of made-on-site chili. A sign says the chili is spicy and available in season only.

Luci Bell and Myra Humphrey went for the house chef’s salad, also available in a small size; Margie Wadlington and Carolyn Koon had the green garden, which is available in either a small or a large size.

Carol and I have previously devoured her salad greens with ham, cheese, tomatoes and olives, topped with Italian dressing.

Gayle Taylor and Connie Candage must have read the lighted sign out front saying, “Famous Roast Beef Sandwich Voted Best.” I don’t know which options they chose – with cheese, plain or Italian.

Pat Browder chose ham and cheese Chicago style with Thousand Island dressing and lettuce; Carol got to talking and forgot to ask what Judy Suter ordered for her half sandwich.

Other sandwiches on the menu are meatball with cheese and onion. Offered plain or Italian-style are ham and Swiss and Genoa salami with hot pepper cheese.

All sandwiches are served hot or cold, with pepperoncini peppers and kosher dill pickles.

Mama told me the most ordered item is a hand-spun pizza with pepperoni, sausage, cheese and mushrooms.

Our out-of-town children always stop there when they visit us, and now our grown-up grandchildren continue this tradition — this is Mama Mia’s.

They usually order “Mama Mia’s Special” pizza of pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, sausage and green peppers.

Jean Hoholin had a slice of pepperoni pizza; Becky Schnept enjoyed a slice of cheese pizza. Slices are served during lunch hours, but groups can share a 16” pizza in the evenings.

“Most customers, they think I’m nuts if I tell them to try a sauerkraut pizza, and then they like it,” Mama said to me some time ago. “It tastes good with sausage, with pepperoni, with ham. Sauerkraut pizza is good.”

I believed her and tried a cheese, sausage and sauerkraut pizza on a previous visit. It was delicious. Carol ordered a slice, cut into bite-size pieces, for the group to sample. Most liked it.

Lottie, who is proud to say she will soon be 88, opened Mama Mia’s on Feb. 4, 1971. If you remember that the building at 705 W. Race St. was previously occupied by Meredith’s Dixie Market, you’ve been around Kingston for a while. She showed me the photo with the sign in front.

The Sunday school lunch group sits in the more private area in the back so they won’t disturb other customers with their lively conversations. The pizzeria can seat about 75.

On our many previous visits, I usually ate too much spaghetti and meatballs with meat sauce. You can order it only with meat sauce  and add mushrooms.

The “Italian Fare” spaghetti is served with a fresh salad and homemade bread. A child’s order is also available.

Lottie said, “I make it from scratch,” including the 50 pounds of sausage she makes every two weeks.

It’s made of pork and all the ingredients the Italians use — fennel seeds, sage, breadcrumbs and whatever else she can get hold of.

Mama’s is open from noon to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday. Payment is by cash or check only. Standard beverages, draft and bottled beers are available.

When I interviewed Mama, she had flour on her hands and arms, rolling out loaves of bread. I took home a hot loaf, just out of the oven.

“I never get out of the kitchen,” she said. “I come in the morning at 9 a.m., and stay here until 10 or 11 p.m., every day. I make it from scratch. I just do it my way. My way, or no way. How about that? I’m not changing. I’m too old for changing.”

Mildred Cole, who grew up in Kingston and now lives in Rockwood, is Lottie’s second-in-command. She has been at Mama Mia’s for 15 years.

As for desserts, Lottie makes homemade oatmeal cookies that you might want to save for tomorrow‘s breakfast, because it will fill you up. Cheesecake is also available, with fruit topping optional.

When you visit Mama Mia’s Restaurant & Pizzeria in Kingston, if you’ve eaten there more than a couple of times, I’ll bet Mama knows your name (if she’s not in the kitchen). But she might say it with a slight European accent.

You might not even be given a menu, just asked if your want “your regular.” One good reason their ads say “Famous Since 1971.”

Mama Mia’s is a Kingston institution. A place that when folks who have left the area return home, they go to eat and say hello to old friends. It’s a family place to enjoy good Italian food. A community gathering place.

If you’re new in the area and feeling lonesome for the folks you left behind, Mama Mia’s is a great place to make new friends and enjoy good food.

I’d still like to hear a recording of the group’s comments (on the food, of course) and their chatter.
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Bethel Poston is a Roane County businessman and entrepreneur who writes about places of interest in our area. E-mail suggestions and comments to postonplace@bellsouth.net.