Lottie O’Brien has been following that routine since 1971. She is now 92 years old.
This German lady with the Irish last name makes Italian pizza in the Roane County, Tennessee, community of Kingston, where she runs Mama Mia’s Pizza.
She was born in Augsburg, Germany, and came to America in 1950, after marrying William O’Brien, a U.S. serviceman. Lieselotte, as she was known back in Germany, had never even heard of pizza before leaving her Bavarian homeland. She learned the art of pizza making in America, from her Italian mother-in-law, Dorothy Caccia.
Lottie’s husband was a job shopper for the Tennessee Valley Authority. He’d have a job for six months, and when it was completed, he would have to travel on.
“Every time he had a job, I had a kid. I had eight kids,” Lottie tells me with a smile.
William’s involvement with TVA brought the family to Roane County, and Lottie went into business on West Race Street, not far from Watts Bar Lake. Her timing was perfect. Roane State Community College had opened its doors that year, and Mama Mia’s Pizza would come to be a popular hangout for Roane State students, faculty, and staff.
Lottie’s cooking techniques are solidly old school. She bakes pizza on a bed of cornmeal in an irreplaceable, antique Blake brick oven brought down to Tennessee from New York.
Most everything at Mama Mia’s is made from scratch. Her pizza sauce is a house-made, uncooked combination of whole tomatoes, oregano, garlic, and crushed red peppers. She makes her own pizza dough, her own French bread for sandwiches, and her own fennel-seasoned Italian sausage.
“I don’t believe to buy all that stuff,” Lottie says. “I make it from scratch, my sausage. It’s made of pork and you put in all the ingredients the Italians do, the fennel seeds, the sage, bread crumbs, whatever I get ahold of.” She makes 50 pounds of sausage every two weeks.
The sauce for her spaghetti, lasagna, and meatball sandwiches cooks 10 hours in a stock pot set in a water pan. It’s the same length of time she takes to roast the beef for her submarine sandwiches.
The menu at Mama Mia’s may be largely Italian, but Lottie has never forgotten her German roots.
“Most of them, they think I’m nuts if I tell them try a sauerkraut pizza, and then they like it. It tastes good with sausage, with pepperoni, with ham. Sauerkraut pizza is good!
“I have the German touch, not just Italian. I just do it my way. My way or no way. How about that? I’m not changing. I’m too old for changing.”
For her loyal following in Roane County, Lottie’s time-tested way is just fine. As the sign out front says, Mama Mia’s has been “Famous Since 1971.”
Mama Mia’s Pizza
705 West Race Street
Fred Sauceman’s latest book is “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”