You’ve heard of Mamma, everyone has, but her three sons are the force behind the matriarch who made the family name a household favorite. The sauces, the pizzas, the decked out catering halls, authentic market and now, the wine and gelato. The first generation Napolitano family was going after the American dream, and catch it they did.
On hand to translate Mamma’s interview were her daughter Josephine and grandson Phil
The Backstory, as told by Mamma:
Michelina Lombardi, 81 years old this month. I came to the US in 1968 from Napoli d’Avellino. A small town, Mugnano del Cardinale. I was 37 years old, I had five kids with me—my husband and eldest son and daughter were already here. The three brothers had the idea to open a pizzeria. I thought it was a good idea, just work hard. So we opened the first in Bay Shore. It was ten tables. Every morning I put the kids to school and went to work. I made the sauce every morning. The brothers had to worry about everything—the shopping, the laws—I was always doing the cooking.
We have a lot of Italian clientele, and most Italians know how to cook. So for them, to go out of their way to come here, it’s gotta be good. Most important in Italian cooking is you gotta put garlic. But Italians cook with their eyes. It’s not about measuring, because if it looks good, it’ll taste good.
I watch. I see everything. I keep my eyes open. You can get upset during the day—but it passes before we even go home. We have strong family roots. And we have a glass of wine…
Now I have eight kids and ten grandkids. We have a beautiful family. They all respect me and I them. But the three brothers make the decisions. All I want is that we love each other. That’s what I’m most proud of.
John: I was working as a dishwasher. I was 17 years old. After being there for a couple of years—I used to get home at 2 o’clock in the morning and my father used to wait for me—he said, “This job, it’s not a healthy job. You’re working seven days a week, holidays…it’s time to either open your own place or quit this job.” So, I found a location in Bay Shore. And we started from there. It was 1976.
Guy: I forgot that you started in that place.
John: You were a butcher. Jerry was a baby. So all the pressure was on me. As a dishwasher, I used to watch what they used to do [at that other place], and write it all down.
Guy: He had the reputation as one of the best pizza guys. He still makes a pizza once in a while.
Guy: In 1984 we moved the pizzeria… We were growing rapidly, customers were in the parking lot waiting for tables. So it was time for us to make a move—
Jerry: We only wanted to buy the two acres that was commercial [across the street in Holbrook, where Mamma’s still stands today], but they were connected to another five acres, which was residential. We really didn’t want that at the time. But that was the deal, he wouldn’t separate it. And that’s how the catering hall came up. We had the property, we were expanding—
Guy: Later, we all made the business decision to do something in catering. That was 1994. People were doing catering, but we came up with the idea of doing restaurant food in the catering location.
John: —and we did that.
Jerry: Nobody believed we could do that. Everybody was against it.
Guy: We did it the only way we knew how to do it, restaurant style—
Jerry: No cans.
Guy: My mom really worked hard in Italy. She worked with seven kids over there, she went out, she worked in the field, she came back, she fed us, she did it all. She still gets the whip on us. So we make everything about mamma—she was the one that was with us—
Jerry: —she was from day one.
Guy: She still works three days a week. My dad was the bread and butter guy. He went to work to make sure the food was on the table while we were building…it’s always gonna be mamma.
John: Always mamma.
Guy: She’s the one that kept everything going.
Guy: We never really said, “You do this, I do that, you do that.” You know, we always did as much as we can. We share all the ideas, we share everything. If we have to make a decision we discuss it first and then we make a decision.
Jerry: But we kept our respect for each other. There was times when we, you know, we butt heads. But, “Ok, you’re the older brother, that’s your decision.”
John: That’s the way we were brought up.
Jerry: When we started in this business, I was 15, 16 years old. John was 18, Guy was 21. We were young kids.
Guy: There was a lot of rough times. It’s not easy.
Jerry: It would’ve been a lot easier to punch each other and just walk away. But we kept that hierarchy.
John: There wasn’t enough hours. By the time you got home, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning. We wash up a little bit, boom, you go to sleep.
Guy: Part of our success is being together. I could’ve never have done it by myself.
Jerry: The success really worked where we knew our place. Where, ok, you’re older, I’m not gonna overstep my boundary.
Guy: But you don’t take advantage of that.
Jerry: Now you don’t, but back then…
Guy: I did?! Well, you know, Jerry, when you were 16 you told me if I don’t buy you a car you’re not coming to work! He left, he went to Florida! We had to buy him the car! You didn’t even have a license yet!
Jerry: Back then, we didn’t take money out of the business. We lived at home, we used to take 50 dollars a week, and that was our spending money. We kept putting into the business. Otherwise I don’t think we would be where we are now.
John: Mamma controlled the money. At the end of the day, you just hand everything to her, that’s it. Pay the bills… And Jerry used to burn everything on me. I used to make a delivery. I says, “Look, I got 50 pounds of sausage in the oven.” By the time I would get back, boom! One time—
Jerry: Listen, I only burned the sausage once…
Jerry: We discuss everything…It’s always we come to agreement. If it’s not a good idea, it’s not a good idea.
Guy: We worked, all of us. When we got started, we were the dishwashers, and at the end of the night, we cleaned.
Jerry: The stores were open seven days a week. So somebody was there at all times.
Guy: We’ve been in business 35 years and we’re still growing. We don’t want to put in the 12 hours behind the stoves like we used to, but we still enjoy the business. We still love it.
John: It was a lot of great years. But we’re slowing down a little bit, I think.
Jerry: When we first opened up in Bay Shore, the silly colors that we used! When we think about it now, it’s like, “What the hell were we thinking?” Baby blue, pink…and red and white stripes.
John: That was our uniforms!
Jerry: When we first opened up in Holbrook, all three of us were in the kitchen.
Guy: All of us were always hands-on with everything.
Jerry: To get up every morning to go to work, you gotta love the business.
Guy: The nicest thing to see is the family’s been together 40 years. The brothers and sisters—we’re always together. It was worth all of it. It’s been a family thing.
1976 Mamma Lombardi’s, Bay Shore
1978 Mamma Lombardi’s, first location in Holbrook
1984 Mamma Lombardi’s, current location
1994 Villa Lombardi’s
2001 Lombardi’s Market
2002 Mamma’s sauce in Waldbaum’s
2004 Lombardi’s on the Sound
2005 Mamma Lombardi’s Pizzico
2009 Lombardi’s on the Bay