Mama Leone’s Italian Restaurant
Over multiple generations, pizza has ignited romances and forged strong family bonds at this mom-and-pop gem in northern Michigan.
When 18-year-old Frank Mazzella arrived Stateside from the island of Ponza, Italy, in 1948, he settled in the Bronx in New York, living with relatives, working construction and pitching in at an Italian cafe and pizzeria. But his life would change when, in 1952, Frank visited a friend in Detroit and went for pizza at Amato’s. “That’s where he saw my mother, Yolanda,” recounts Silverio Mazzella, son of Frank and co-owner of Mama Leone’s Italian Restaurant in Gaylord, Michigan. “He said she was going to be his wife, and she said, ‘You’re outta your mind!’”
Only two weeks later, Frank moved to Detroit to court Yolanda, snagging a job at Amato’s making pizzas. Next year, they married and opened their own first business, Ponza Pizzeria. Thanks to brisk sales, the couple opened two more: Frank’s in 1956 and Francisco’s in 1960. But, a decade later, Frank and Yolanda vacationed with their two sons in northern Michigan and fell in love with the area. They soon moved to Gaylord and opened Mama Leone’s in a 1,500-square-foot pasty house (which in five years would expand to 5,000). “Everything was made from my mom and dad’s family recipes,” Silverio notes. “Neither had any formal training, but they learned, getting better and better as they went. And we still keep everything authentic.”
Frank and Yolanda passed away in 1991 and 2014, but that authenticity has survived through a stream of close-knit family members. Silverio, now 62, laughs that his first bassinet was a pizza drawer; like his father, he met his wife, Tina, at the pizzeria when she became an employee 44 years ago. Their son, Silverio, also grew up in the business and now works alongside his wife, Jessica. The intermix of generations creates an “old school meets new school” effect: social media engagement even though the pizzeria still sports a vintage cash register, old-time favorites on the menu juxtaposed with new trends like gluten-free pizza and pasta.
Silverio believes the business has remained successful thanks to a focus on food quality, community involvement, consistency and personal customer connections cemented over the decades. “You have to be willing to work and not get discouraged or cut corners,” Silverio concludes. “As independents, we have to do it the right way, and we can do a little extra. The little things are what make a family-owned place great. It’s a tough business, but you look back at a lot of good memories and a lot of good friends.”
—By Tracy Morin