By Paul Leighton
BEVERLY — Mama Tina was known for her sweet pizza sauce, her lasagna, her linguine with clam sauce, her minestrone soup.
But that didn't mean you could necessarily have your pick of such dishes when you walked into her family-owned Little Italy Pizzeria on Cabot Street.
If you wanted eggplant, Mama Tina might insist on the chicken Parmesan. If you were thinking chicken soup, she might steer you in the direction of the pasta fazool.
For two decades, customers did what they were told at Little Italy and kept coming back for more, thanks in large part to the cooking talents and colorful personality of Innocenza "Mama Tina" Francavilla, who died of lung cancer on Sept. 29 at age 81.
"I'm not going to say we didn't lose a few customers," said her daughter, Tina Carroll. "But her food was so good you did what you had to do to eat it."
Tina and Luigi Francavilla opened Little Italy in 1984 and ran it with the help of their son, Enzo. They worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to carve out a successful business among the dozens of pizza shops in the city.
Tina and Luigi were both born in Italy, where they met while working at a hotel. In 1970 they moved to the United States, enticed to the land of opportunity by relatives living in New Jersey.
While Luigi took a job in a New Jersey factory, Tina met a woman who taught her how to make pizza. When she was pregnant with their third child, Tina opened her own pizza shop. She'd bring the baby to work, placing her in a bassinet near the oven and giving her pepperoni slices to keep her quiet.
Tina eventually teamed up with her husband to open Tina's Restaurant, which they ran for several years. In 1980 they followed their oldest son, Michael, to Beverly and four years later opened Little Italy.
Mama Tina, as her customers called her, ran a tight ship. She always had a special of the day and was not shy about letting customers know that was the dish she preferred they order.
While some customers might have been put off by her style, most savored a trip to Little Italy as a unique experience, a slice of life you couldn't find in the homogeneous retail world of malls and chains.
"It was an event," Carroll said. "People would talk about her with such admiration. They'd say, 'She was so great. She was so real.' And when she liked you, forget about it. She would feed you until the buttons on your pants popped."
You didn't necessarily have to go to Little Italy to enjoy the food. When Mama Tina ran errands to the bank or the doctor's office, she'd always bring along a slice of pizza for the employees.
Tina and Luigi worked into their 70s before finally selling the business in 2000. Enzo later opened his own pizzeria on Rantoul Street, named Luigi's in honor of his father. Tina and Luigi both helped out at the shop until recent years, when they both became ill with cancer. Luigi died in 2009.
Just after Mama Tina died, Carroll went to a store in Beverly to buy an outfit for the funeral. It was a store that her mother had often frequented. And every time she did, the clerk told Carroll, she would bring along a slice of pizza.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by e-mail at email@example.com.