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2019-01-01 / Dishing

Slice of Life

Johnnie and Mel Jennings take extra care with what’s coming out of — and going into — the kitchens at Pizza Mia.
Michele Marchetti | Photos by Matt Fern


Johnnie Jennings bursts through the doors of his pizza shop and steps behind the counter to give an employee a hug. His wife, Mel, due with their sixth child on Christmas Eve, enters a few minutes later, 2-year-old Jack in tow.

The snow is falling like a scene out of a Hallmark movie and Johnnie smiles wide as if to say, “This is my life.” Behind the counter, 75-year-old Nellie helps keep the operation running. Jennings is grateful, and routinely compliments her on a work ethic that beats that of many 30-year-olds. She responds by playfully accusing him of exaggerating the number of subs she can assemble in an hour.

Taking a seat in the dining room that Johnnie says was once occupied by the man who built Bellefonte (“This was his stables”), he and Mel tell story after story about Pizza Mia, the business that serves as the backdrop of their life. Each periodically stops mid-sentence to bellow into the kitchen; of their shared restaurant voice, Mel says, “It comes from the gut.”

Johnnie, 48, has an appointment at 10 a.m., which he ends up rescheduling. He has a lot on his mind. Pizza Mia, which operates shops in Bellefonte, State College and Lock Haven, is about to launch a menu that will include new options for vegetarians and vegans; for the latter group it will offer pizzas with or without “cheese.”

The roots of those menu items go back to 2003, when Johnnie and Mel first met. One hundred pounds overweight and on blood pressure pills, he wandered into Mel’s Bellefonte pizza shop. At the time, Pizza Mia offered delivery or takeout only. Johnnie asked if he could please sit down. “Fine,” Mel answered. “But I’m not bringing you your food. When it’s ready I’ll yell.”

Johnnie kept coming back, and Mel kept feeding him. One day, as Johnnie was in the “midst of the largest weight-loss campaign in history,” prompted by a doctor who told him to change his diet, Mel made him the salad that has been permanently etched in his memory. He couldn’t pinpoint why, but it tasted different. “That’s because I don’t use bagged lettuce,” she told him.

From that moment on, Johnnie and Mel began brainstorming ways they could change Pizza Mia to make their customers more health conscious. “We asked ourselves, ‘Is there really such a thing as a healthy pizza shop?’” Johnnie says. “‘Is that a pipe dream or can we really do that?’” Immediately they started using extra virgin olive oil and exploring how to bake their own bread.

The couple married in 2008. Around the same time, they met an Amish family who lived down the street from their Mill Hall home. The oldest daughter in the family helped Mel plant the couple’s first garden, with the produce going to the pizza shop. After the couple’s daughter was born in 2014, that family also helped out with babysitting. “When we picked up our daughter, we’d find her making homemade ketchup or grape juice,” Johnnie says. One day he met one of the babysitter’s brothers, who was raising pigs. That 14-year-old boy became Pizza Mia’s first provider of nitrate-free sausage and bacon.

Today Pizza Mia sources its sausage, bacon and beef from Mark’s Custom Meats in Howard. “Because it’s local, there’s no need for nitrates or any preservatives,” Johnnie says.

Summer tomatoes are sourced from Hilltop Farm (“The same farm that donates the giant pumpkins in the annual Punkin’ Chunkin’”) and Mackeyville Produce in Mill Hall. In the winter, Pizza Mia uses a local distributor from Warriors Mark who picks up produce from a dock in Pittsburgh. “It’s never warehoused,” Mel says.

The shop added whole-wheat dough and a lower calorie “spring pizza” with tomatoes, basil and roasted garlic atop a crushed flour crust. For its regular pies, they’ve always used whole-milk mozzarella cheese with no fillers, adhering to the “whole foods only” rule that avoids anything that’s processed or added.

The couple believes those hidden ingredients — additives that are supposed to make up for reduced fat or sugar or an inferior product — are the No.1 factor in America’s obesity crisis. Johnnie says he is living proof: He claims he lost 100 pounds just by avoiding processed food and eating at Pizza Mia.

“There’s a lot we put into our food that our body has no idea what to do with.”

The couple bakes its wings and fries, and three years ago, when Pizza Mia took over the Corrinado’s Pizza location at 114 Hetzel St. in State College, it immediately pulled out the deep fryer. It would do the same with the new location the couple is eyeing in Philipsburg.

The decision not to fry their food seems quite simple to them: “Our friends and family members eat here,” Mel says.

And they are intimately involved in the Pizza Mia operation. Some of Pizza Mia’s best employees were recipients of the annual Pizza Mia Entrepreneurial Spirit Award scholarships, established 12 years ago to recognize business-minded high school students from the Bald Eagle and Bellefonte Area school districts. When Johnnie spots kids from the local daycare walking by his business, he hands out free cookies and engages them in a Pizza Mia cheer. He yells “1, 2, 3,” and they respond with “PIZZA MIA!”

Jennings even thinks he can parlay his pizza success into a bid for a local office. Pizza Mia’s T-shirts, created two years ago, feature a voting ballot with three choices: Republican party, Democratic party and Pizza party.

You can guess which one is checked. •SCM 


Pizza Mia
Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

Portobello mushrooms
Pizza Mia house dressing
Fresh peeled garlic
Extra virgin olive oil
Tomatoes
Fresh basil
Whole milk mozzarella

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Remove caps of mushrooms, place in a pan and cover with our signature house dressing (any Italian or Greek dressing that you love will do). Cover with foil and bake for about 30 minutes.

At the same time, you can also roast the garlic. Chop fresh garlic, put in pan, cover with extra virgin olive oil, and bake for about 30 minutes or until garlic is soft and slightly golden on top.

In a separate bowl, mix together freshly diced tomatoes, freshly chopped basil and roasted garlic. Spoon this mixture into the roasted mushroom caps.  

Top with whole milk mozzarella and return to oven, uncovered, for about 5-7 minutes or until cheese is melted.


See there menu at https://www.restaurantji.com/pa/state-college/pizza-mia-/

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