Mother Knows Best: There’s a new(ish) pizza joint in town

By Andrea E. McHugh

At Mother Pizzeria the menu is simple but elevated, the vibe chic but not pretentious

Mother Pizzeria in Newport | Angel Tucker photo

Pizza can hold two truths: It can be both easy to make and wildly complicated to perfect. Few people know that more than the trio behind Mother Pizzeria, where a summertime opening nearly a year ago was a baptism by fire. Chefs Kevin O’Donnell and Kyle Stamps — and tenured restaurateur Lauren Schaefer — were fully aware a mid-summer opening in a bustling resort city like Newport isn’t for the faint of heart, but they were unfazed — even if their collective grace under pressure was just for show.

“With eight months under us, it’s going to feel really good just to go into high season with a little bit more confidence, feeling like the team really knows what it’s doing,” says Schaefer with an assured smile. At first glance, the elevated space at Mother, embracing contemporary décor marked by clean lines, marble counters, and a soothing muted-meets-metallic color palette, suggests anything but what many would consider a “pizza restaurant,” but this ain’t your mother’s pizza.

From left, Lauren Schaefer, Kyle Stamps and Kevin O’Donnell, pictured at Mother’s sister restaurant, Giusto

The three found synergy years earlier at Giusto, the “freestyle Italian” restaurant serving lauded, creative dishes at Hammetts Hotel in the heart of downtown. The restaurant earned an enviable reputation quickly and was just named a 2024 James Beard Awards semifinalist for Outstanding Hospitality. But for the chefs, pizza has long been embedded in their DNA.

O’Donnell and Stamps met as teens working at now-closed Junction Pizzeria in North Kingstown. They credit chef-owner Walter Slater, who went on to helm kitchens at many Newport Restaurant Group restaurants and now serves as the executive chef of Foodlove Market in Middletown, with planting the seeds of both pizza-making and entrepreneurship.

“Walter was an awesome mentor,” says Stamps. “I always wanted to open a pizzeria, ever since I worked there.”

The Clam Pizza | Angel Tucker photo

While one doesn’t have to look far to find pizza in Newport, Stamps, O’Donnell, and Schaefer wanted to take a different approach by creating a neighborhood restaurant serving both recognizable and creative artisanal pizza pies made using 100% naturally fermented sourdough from local stone-ground flour. The dining experience would be made whole by a thoughtful cocktail program, carefully curated low- intervention wines from small producers, exceptional hospitality and an inspired aesthetic throughout.

“We never want it to feel pretentious or stuffy or any of those things, we just want it to be done in a way we can feel really proud of and that we can nerd out about it and take it to the next level,” explains Schaefer.

Mother Pizzeria gets its name from the “mother” or starter yeast culture used to initiate the fermentation process in sourdough bread making. Notoriously finicky, everything from the temperature to the humidity level can impact how sourdough behaves, and Stamps concedes the dough comes with a learning curve,
but the executive chef turned pizzaiolo is up to the task.

Garlic knots cacio e pepe and meatballs | Angel Tucker photo

“People in the industry know that it’s challenging, and we knew we could do a really good pizza, so we thought, let’s do a really good sourdough pizza,” explains Stamps.

Sourdough is a naturally leavened bread, as opposed to breads that use commercially available dry active yeast to rise, explains Schaefer. “It’s done with as little intervention as possible to make something that tastes delicious, coupling that with using the best ingredients we can find and sourcing as much as we can locally,” she says.

The flour is sourced from Ground Up, a mill that stone-grinds grains from family-owned farms in the Northeast. “That was really important to use, to have someone milling the flour here,” says Stamps. “When you open a bag of it, it smells like a wheat field.”

Narragansett Creamery supplies the restaurant’s mozzarella, and cheese board offerings have included selections from Sweet & Salty Farm in Little Compton, Cricket Creek Farm in Massachusetts, Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont — and beyond.

Mother typically offers about half a dozen different pizzas including staples like a classic margherita as well as the “RI Party Pie,” a nod to the Ocean State’s iconic cheeseless pizza strip that tends to delight diners with nostalgia or require further explanation.

The cured & aged board at Mother | Angel Tucker photo

“There are people that come in and are so excited because they understand what a party pie is — a Rhode Island pie — and say, ‘that’s so cool!’” says Schaefer. “Then you have other people who are like, ‘WHAT is a party pie?’ So, it makes for a good conversation for people not from this state or don’t know what that is.”

But other specialty pizzas are limited edition, like the Wham Bam Thank You Clam with clam, potato, cream, salsa verde and n’duja, a spicy, spreadable Italian pork sausage. “The menu changes quarterly,” says Schaefer, explaining that the restaurant is “leaning into seasonality.”

This time of year, springtime produce like asparagus, peas, and mushrooms will likely find their way into the mix.

At 12 inches, the pizzas are idyllically sharable, and the sourdough crust’s lip, its “cornicione,” to pizza aficionados, offers a healthy amount of speckled char from being baked in a Marra Forni Neapolitan-style pizza oven. “This oven can get up to a much higher temperature, and it’s a drier heat almost, because of the dome,” adds Stamps.

Other times, diners will find creative, even unconventional combinations of ingredients, allowing Stamps to flex his pizza prowess. The cacophony of wafting aromas inside is further enhanced by culinary treasures like scratch-made punchy pork and beef meatballs, mozzarella in Carrozza (a traditional Neapolitan snack that’s essentially a small fried mozzarella sandwich), and garlic knots cacio e pepe, an elevated mash-up of the New York pizzeria side-dish staple.

The Sunny Side Pizza | Angel Tucker photo

“Anytime you go to a pizzeria in New York or New Jersey, you’ll see a big pile of garlic knots, but we put our twist on them to make them different and delicious,” says Stamps. “That’s what’s guided us in general: you can find the heart of a pizzeria behind everything we do here.”

Since getting its feet underneath it, the restaurant has introduced slices of pizza in rotating flavors and Roman-style pizza pies to go, plus house-made pastries and breads. Though the exceptional bar program has been in place since day one, the 12-seat bar has come into its own, providing an intimate, chic space to enjoy flirty cocktails like the Spicy Tequila Thing; a twist on a spicy margarita, or one of the handful of spritzes (upgrade from the ubiquitous Aperol spritz found elsewhere for A Walk on the Oaxacan Side made with Bully Boy Amaro, mezcal, and lambrusco).

Gelato with olive oil | Angel Tucker

The newly introduced aperitivo hour (Monday through Friday) pays homage to Italy’s pre-dinner tradition.

Saturdays and Sundays brings “Weekends at Mother,” the restaurant’s answer to brunch with additions to the main menu that include reimagined brunch-style cocktails including a reinvented Bloody Mary garnished with a skewer of mortadella, provolone cheese, and an olive (“Like a Muffuletta sandwich,” describes Schaefer) and a special menu with finds including a pizza with guanciale and a fried egg.

And when it comes to a meal’s final bow at Mother Pizzeria, don’t sleep on the house-made gelato, which comes with a twist some diners might consider an unexpected pairing.

“When you order any scoop of gelato, there is a drizzle of olive oil on it,” says Schaefer. The restaurant has made a variety of flavors of the silky sweet Italian treat that when topped with just little top-grade extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of kosher salt, dances on the palate. “It adds a little slight savoriness to the experience of the gelato, balancing out that sweetness.”

A close-up of the pizza perfection at Mother