Carmela Sbarro, founder of the Sbarro’s Pizza chain, died this week at the age of 90. What is now known to most people as a worldwide pizza chain with more than 1,000 restaurant locations, began as a family-owned Salumeria on 65th Street and 17th Avenue.
Affectionately known as “Mama Sbarro” to locals, Carmela and her husband Gennaro immigrated to Bensonhurst from Naples, Italy, in 1956. They opened a deli that became popular for its fresh and authentic meats and cheeses.
Mama Sbarro worked every day behind the counter and stayed true to her Neapolitan roots, scolding customers who requested ketchup or mayonnaise on prosciutto sandwiches.
Joan Sbarro, one of her daughters-in-law, recalled how she wouldn’t hesitate to tell even her most loyal customers that she won’t use mayo, and if they wanted that, they should “go somewhere else,” wrote the New York Times.
The original Sbarro’s also sold gourmet Italian ingredients to immigrants in the neighborhood, and by the 1970’s the shop grew into a chain. Her sons left Brooklyn to run the company and set up fast, cafeteria-style pizza restaurants in malls across the country. As the company grew, Mrs. Sbarro continued to oversee the production of much of the food and remained working in the original location.
When the operation became too large for her to make all of the cheesecakes personally, she insisted that the quality and ingredients remain the same.
“It was not about the money; it was a sense of pride,” explained one of her sons.
After living and working in the same Bensonhurst apartment well into her 70’s, her family persuaded her to move to Long Island to be close to two of her sons. The family sold the company in 2007 for $450 million after they decided Mrs. Sbarro shouldn’t be alone in Brooklyn anymore.
The first Sbarro’s closed in 2004. Standing in its place is a Japanese sushi restaurant and across the street are a Polish deli and a Spanish restaurant, reflecting the changing demographics of Bensonhurst. What was once an overwhelmingly Italian enclave is now home to an influx of Chinese, Russian, and Albanian immigrants.
Carmela Sbarro was predeceased by her husband who died in 1984. She is survived by her sons Joseph and Anthony, as well as 13 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren.