106 N Spring St. Bellefonte , Pennsylvania 16823
This is the tenth article in a series spotlighting some of the local businesses in Bellefonte. Pop into one of these participating businesses- Alleycat Quiltworks, Bella Vino Wine Bar, Jake’s Cards & Games, Iron Star Trading Company, M&M Copy Service, Brother's Pizzeria, Pizza Mia, Elite Edge Athletics, Wireless Made Simple, Blonde Bistro, Bellefonte Art Museum or Bonfatto's- starting on Small Business Saturday, November 24th (and for a limited time after), to pick up your FREE BFT decal. It's our way of saying thanks for supporting all the independent shops and eateries that help keep Bellefonte so remarkably unique.
By Serge Bielanko
John Jennings is the kind of guy who has a lot of ideas. We talk on the phone one recent morning and it's all John. He bounces from one to another with ease, never allowing me to ponder one too long before he's off to the next one. By the end of the call, I'm sitting at my kitchen island, staring at my empty cup of coffee, thinking I might need to make bigger pots of joe if I ever hope to hang with the likes of Jennings. He is, what we used to call back around Philly where I grew up,..."an idea guy". Life inspires him. One thing leads to another.
But unlike a lot of 'idea guys' I've met in my time on Earth, Jennings stands out in one particular way. Unlike a lot of people who are reasonably solid at dreaming (the easy part) but kind of short on execution (the hard part), John Jennings is an idea guy who actually makes things happen. And it's one of these ideas that landed him in the position he finds himself in today as owner and operator, along with his wife, Melissa, of that much-loved Spring Street culinary landmark known simply as Pizza Mia!.
I know what you're saying to yourself right now.
Just tell us the darn idea already, Mr. Fancy Writer Man!
Because before I share this big idea of Jennings', I think we need a little back story here, okay? This isn't slightly twisted some rags-to-riches story of a dude who started a pizza shop and then moved on into franchising, maybe selling his frozen pizzas out of the trunk of his car or whatever, years go by: the whole business explodes and the local pizza guy becomes a zillionaire living in a gated community where no one ever eats pizza or even any kind of carbs at all.
This is kind of the opposite of that, actually.
In fact, the whole thing, this whole Pizza Mia! tale? It's all based upon one thing, which- depending on how jaded you've become over the last couple of years of non-stop surrealistic news pummeling your brains into a glob of summer groundhog road salad- may or may not lift your heart just a wee bit this post-holiday season. See, the thing is, when you listen to John Jennings tell the story of Pizza Mia!, you finally put the phone down after a solid hour of only listening to the voice on the other end KNOWING that above and beyond everything or anything else going on up front or back behind the counters of this one pizza joint down in Bellefonte, one thing is for absolute certain.
And that's this.
Pizza Mia! is based on, built upon, and destined around one universal concept that is both as simple and as complex as just about any concept this mad world has ever known.
I'm talking about...love.
Go ahead. Let it sink in. A pizza shop based on love. What the **** is this guy talking about?!?!
Ha, I know. I was skeptical at first too. But then I met John, remember?
"People around here, man, they eat our pizza throughout so many different stages of their lives. We've been here 15 years now. That's a long time." Jennings is riffing on the human poetry hovering just beneath the surface of his pizza shops (he and Melissa also own one in State College and one in Lock Haven, respectively). "Think about it. They eat our pizza after their Little League games and after school. They have our pizza on first dates. At work. At night, at home with their families."
He pauses a second or two, considering the grand scope of this proverbial rabbit hole he's stumbled down on his own.
"Dude, people eat our pizzas at funerals for people they loved more than anything. We have been a part of their lives in a way, feeding them when they needed us. I know it isn't the first thing you think of when you think of Pizza Mia! but it's true. And I'm proud of that."
It stops me in my tracks there for a second.
Because, you know what?
John Jenning is right. This business he's in, unlike so many of us, it does allow for him and his family (as of late December, he now has 6 children) to literally connect with the masses in one of the oldest and most beautiful ways that mankind has ever known. I'm talking about food. Cooking it and serving it to hungry people: it's a concept based upon the idea of love that ultimately became big business the world over. Yet, it's business where the 'love' part is- more often than not- lost to that ever-present demon of modern times: the bottom line.
Pizza Mia! has tried to fight that demon every step of the way.
I could list all the reasons, I guess. I can tell you about how Melissa and John are sort of pioneers of the local foodie scene around here. Nowadays, a lot of very good, even great, restaurants in Centre County and beyond pride themselves on serving only fresh LOCAL ingredients to their customers. Which is fantastic, especially since we're all lucky enough to be living in a part of the world that can indeed provide us with endless amounts of food literally raised or grown right down the road. But we ought to give credit where credit is due.
This Pizza Mia! crew have been doing this since they opened a decade and a half ago.
"I tell new people who come in to the shop looking to sell me their meat or produce or whatever...,"If you're not located 60 miles or less from here, I'm sorry, but I can't buy from you," Jennings explains. "Hilltop Farms out on Jacksonville Road; Mark's Meats out of Lamar; Maya Mountain Coffee and Spice Company from Warriors Mark; they're the people we buy from and they're all family-owned and operated business from our area."
But maybe even more important to the nature of our yarn here isn't me telling you all about just how local and good every ingredient Pizza Mia! uses is. The way I see it, there's something even more charming to all of this than that.
I mean, remember, we're talking about love, right? And yeh, sure, you can love a locally grown carrot or whatever, but how much, you know?
I'm talking about this whole other level of love here. Something way beyond the sweet onions from that farm that's practically in your backyard.
Just check this out.
"Honestly, if you'd ever told me that someday I would be making pizzas from dawn to the middle of the night...and loving it, I would have thought you were lying," Jennings says. "Or nuts."
A Bellefonte boy since he was 6-years-old, John Jennings has traveled around, seen some things. Now 48, he looks back on his life in two very distinct chapters.
The first, is everything he did before he met his wife, Melissa (who he affectionately calls Mel). That life was one spent traveling around, marketing various products or concepts or ideas. He spent a ton of various time in marketing, action sports and the mortgage and banking industry, floating ideas out into the world and then working really hard for what sometimes seemed like nothing in return. Toiling like that, it often takes its toll on a body and a mind. Jennings was no different.
"I can honestly say that I was at the lowest point in my life when I first met Mel," he states matter-of-factly. "She owned this pizza parlor on Spring Street and I owned a bunch of buildings all around it. I walked in one day, ordered a slice, saw this woman who was behind the counter cooking and running the show, and my jaw dropped."
They began dating before long and ultimately Melissa would tell John that if he'd just pick up a broom and help sweep the place, well, then they could head out on their dates quicker when she closed up shop for the night. He pitched in. One thing led to another. Before he knew it, John's life had gone from one of blues and uncertainty to one that kind of felt like he was living in a dream.
He fell madly in love with her. And she fell for him too.
They started making pizzas together. And plans on top of that.
And the rest is history.
Which, even in a town where history is hanging out on every corner, I mean, c'mon.
A pizza joint with this like epic Hollywood love story going down in real time back in the kitchen? AND the food is unreal?
You can't make this stuff up.
"She showed me a better way to live," Jennings says of Mel.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot.
John has this idea that's pretty simple and yet, when he talks it up to you, or at least to me, I can't help but buy into it. Maybe it's because in this day and age where everything seems sort of off and everyone seems a bit nuts, it's good to find an idea that you can get behind without having to point a finger, blame someone else.
"I love people, man. For real. Anyone who knows me knows that about me. I love everybody, even mean people," Jennings muses. "And at this point I know that one certain way that I can help to make the world a tiny bit better is by bringing people together through something Mel and I and the people who work with us are good at."
Can you guess?
"Pizza", he says.
'Pizza', I write.
It's the easiest, most basic idea in the world, isn't it? To love the person you make the pizza with, and love the kids you're raising with her- kids who have been around all this pizza since forever, that's a powerful force to be possessing in this spinning world right now, I'd say. Then add on the fact that you love the people you work with ("We love people who love working here," says Jennings), and you love the community where you make your food (part 2 of this story will be all about Pizza Mia! and their community outreach), and you love the fact that business is good because people are recognizing that the food is wonderful and the service is wonderful and there is a family-owned independent spirit of American sweat and work swirled up in all of this love stuff and pretty soon it dawns on a person that..."Hey, you know what? I think I WANT to eat a pizza from that place. Like NOW!"
If you look at their Facebook page, you'll see what I'm talking about.
Santa Claus shows up, families come in to dine and visit with him. Cookies for the kids. That kind of thing all the time. This isn't just a business, I guess. It's something more to the people that own it and live it. John Jennings is an articulate guy, but even he probably has trouble summing it all up at times. Which is perfectly fine, really.
Let the pizza do the talking, you know?
Let their famous Dogie sandwich say all that needs to be said. (By the way, this thing, as good as it is, it ought to be called a DOUGHGIE, no? Just a thought!)
Let the vibe in the place say all that needs to be said when you go in there tired and worn out from a tough day and you just need help and help comes down like a Dickens Christmas Ghost Angel out of the evening sky in the form of one of the best burgers you may ever have in your lifetime.
It's the house that love built, I suppose, and I don't think I'm crossing Hallmark Greeting Card bridge here when I write that. Or maybe I am, I don't know. But something tells me it's an honest assessment of a place we're lucky to have in these parts.
Swing in to Pizza Mia! soon and you'll even be able to grab yourself a BFT sticker absolutely free. It's a way of showing your Bellefonte love no matter where you roam. And it's Bellefonte.com's way of saying thanks to each and every one of you who support all of the small businesses that make this town so special.
Happy New Year!
Go get a slice!
106 N Spring St, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania 16823
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