Scranton native John Watkins learned plenty about food and the service industry as he moved from place to place in his life, including stops in New Jersey, Florida and Hawaii.
But when the Abington Heights High School and Keystone College grad moved back to Northeast Pennsylvania in the early 1990s to be closer to family, he found that there was no place like home for opening a restaurant.
In 1992, Watkins debuted Mamma Mia’s Pizza on Wyoming Avenue in Scranton, where he stayed for more than a decade before finding a permanent home nearby on the first floor of 419 Poplar St. Over the last 14 years, it has become a hub for local student-athletes and others seeking a spot among the cozy seating for 54 to grab a slice.
“We host a lot of sports teams, from Little League to basketball or entire cheerleading squads for pizza parties,” Watkins said.
Mamma Mia’s — which will be closed for its annual vacation week through Monday, July 8 — is known for its sweet red sauce served on round and square alike, which Watkins developed for NEPA based on his experience owning a pizzeria near Rutgers University.
“I created the recipe to local taste,” he explained. “I experimented with pizzas based on customer feedback.”
For those in the know, Watkins also can make trays with a more traditional Italian seasoning sauce, which does not appear on the menu. Other highlights from his list include the Chicken Wing and Fresh Tomato and Garlic pizzas, which are top-sellers. And his Garlic Knots and dessert Cinnamon Knots (served with a vanilla glaze) are a big hit with kids, Watkins said.
In addition to pizza, Mamma Mia’s does a good trade in strombolis, like the hugely popular Steak and Cheese, as well as its Jumbo Wings. Watkins also built a list of hoagies and salads to complement the pizza.
“It’s for convenience,” he noted. “Whenever someone orders pizza, there’s always someone who wants something different.”
Keeping customers happy is crucial, Watkins said, and doing so as he manages the pizzeria requires he spend long hours away from his loved ones, including his wife, Judy, and their sons, John, Michael and Matthew. But the family pitches in to help whenever it can.
Most of the business is takeaway or delivery (available for orders over $20), though many area residents have gotten to know the taste of Mamma Mia’s thanks to Watkins’ generosity with donations to numerous local charitable events and organizations.
“The community is so good to me,” he said. “I always find if you give, they support you so much.”
From churches to fundraisers, if someone calls, Watkins admitted he hardly ever says no.
“It always feels good to give,” he said.
Mamma Mia’s Pizza
Address: 419 Poplar St., Scranton
Owner: John Watkins
Cuisine: Pizzeria food
Hours: Open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Patrice Wilding is a 13-year employee of the Lifestyles Dept. at The Times-Tribune, where she worked her way up from a clerk to a web video producer to a full-time reporter, writer and copy editor. An Olyphant native, she graduated from Mid Valley Secondary Center and earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies with concentration in media arts, political science and communications from Wesley College, Dover, Delaware. She lives in Clarks Summit with her husband, Justin, and their son, Johnny. Contact: email@example.com; 570-348-9100 x5369; @pwildingTT