Pizza Night at Mama Jean’s

Alex Nitardy has a slice of the good life with Mama Jean’s pizzeria.
Alex Nitardy making one of his mouth-watering pizzas.

On the corner of Warner Avenue and Stillwater Road in Willernie, pizza has been king for years—the heavenly aroma of mozzarella cheese, red sauce and pizza dough fill the air, as beloved as the quaint post office and small businesses down the street.

And to continue that pizza tradition, in April 2015, a new pizza joint moved in. What was once Wildwood Pizza is now Mama Jean’s, owned and operated by White Bear native Alex Nitardy.

Nitardy, whose fascination and love for food is all-consuming, has been experimenting in the kitchen for years. His history includes managing a Papa Murphy’s and working at Joseph’s Restaurant in Stillwater, plus six months of culinary classes through Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, an online program.

When Nitardy was 18, he says he wanted to open a Papa Murphy’s franchise, but “I didn’t have the finances, so it was kind of a pipe dream at that point.” So he left the food world. “I did construction for a while, and I collected on student loans and kind of hated it. I always wanted to come back to this.” That’s when he decided to get serious about food.

He worked on his restaurant idea for over two years. “I wanted to open something, but the finances didn’t work out before that,” Nitardy says. “And when we finally started looking for a building, we found [Wildwood Pizza].”

“I always went to Wildwood, since I was really young,” Nitardy says. He loved pizza, and easily got to know the owner of Wildwood, Brian Bell, throughout the years. “He always wanted me to open a restaurant and gave me pointers. He kind of inspired me a bit to do it.” Bell passed away in 2014, his wife passing shortly after, and the restaurant went on the market. Another restaurant took over for roughly eight months before leaving, and that’s when Nitardy came in.

The location was perfect. On a personal level, he had a connection to the space, and on a business level, the clientele was already there; and the space was built for making pizza. So he jumped in and named it Mama Jean’s, for his mother, Jean, who passed away in January 2015, after fighting mouth cancer for three years. “It was a rough deal,” he says, “but it’s named in memory of her.”

Though the space was built for making pizza it still needed quite a bit of remodeling, so Nitardy rolled up his sleeves and set out to create a place that was worthy of his mother’s name. “I was working 8 to 5 [collecting loans], and then I’d come in and do this stuff until midnight every night.” His dad, Chris, is in construction and was able to make the remodel go smoothly. And there was a lot of remodel work.

The entire place got new paint and the bathroom was remodeled, along with the front counter. “The counter was half the size with just a piece of wood on top, instead of granite,” Nitardy says.

At that counter is where you’ll pick up your specialty pizzas (if you didn’t get delivery), ordered online, on the phone or in-store, all created with recipes developed by Nitardy. “It was a lot of trial and error” over the years, he says, but he remembered some of the inspiration and ideas he got from Wildwood’s Bell. “He started me out on some different ideas and recipes,” he says. “I changed some things, but [our pizzas] are definitely similar, because I always loved his pizza a lot.”

Nitardy makes sure to find the highest-quality ingredients for his pizza. The tomatoes for the sauce come from a California vineyard, and the cheese is a five-cheese blend from a dairy in Wisconsin. “I did a lot of sampling with different products to find the best of everything,” he says.

For pizza unique to Mama Jean’s, the gourmet menu is where to look, with favorites being the Mediterranean (olive oil and garlic sauce with spinach, chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese, herbs and balsamic) and the chicken bacon garlic (garlic ranch sauce, chicken, bacon, Roma tomatoes, onions and herbs).

But Nitardy is also making a name for himself with the wings. “The parmesan garlic wing sauce is super-popular,” he says, and all the sauces are made from scratch. Cheesy bread, salads, calzones and wraps round out the menu. The new favorite is the deep-fried taco, which, Nitardy says, would be “a great State Fair food.”

This fall, keep an eye out for his October specials, like his jack-o-lantern-shaped pizza for Halloween. A sauerkraut Oktoberfest pizza will be a special as well, along with an apple crisp-inspired dessert pizza for those who can’t get enough of the fall flavors.

When it’s time for Nitardy to eat, though, he goes straight for the spicy Italian. “I really like spicy food,” he says, and this pizza is covered in pepperoni, sausage, jalapeños, banana peppers and onions. That, or the chicken bacon garlic, dipped in buffalo sauce.

In general, he’s just happy to be creating pizza, and not stuck behind a desk.

And it appears to be paying off. “Business keeps getting better and better,” he says. And he says it’s due to the quality ingredients, and “putting in the time to make everything right.”