In 2013, Mama Mia’s Ristorante in Seaville celebrated 25 years as one of the finest — and most successful — Italian restaurants in South Jersey.

But that fact alone doesn’t totally surprise Owner Joseph Massaglia. It’s about more than that.

“It’s true, I can’t believe it, but what I can’t believe even more is that I have been in this business for 45 years,” Massaglia says. “You can’t take away the quarter of a century that we have thrived here. But to me, it’s about my whole legacy. We established a great business with a great name and a great brand. We aren’t just a restaurant. We are an institution. And I am proud of that.”

It all started May 5, 1988, when Massaglia opened the doors to what was then just a pizzeria with six or seven tables. At the time, Massaglia was managing a gourmet steakhouse inside Trump Marina, which was preceded by him managing Victoria’s at Steve Wynn’s original Golden Nugget in Atlantic City, which was considered the top restaurant in A.C. at the time.

“I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and wanted to be my own boss and entrepreneur,” says Massaglia, who decided to open his original location because it was near his residence. “The heartbeat of my business has always been Seaville. We experimented with everything under the sun since we opened there. I opened in the middle of nowhere, and people say Mama Mia’s put Seaville on the map. People used to call and say, ‘Where is Seaville?’ We took off right away.”

That small pizzeria eventually grew to 25 tables and 100 seats as Cape May County diners learned there was more to Italian restaurants than spaghetti and marinara.

“We started with a small, simple Italian menu, but we always had an experimental attitude,” Massaglia says. “We introduced things that people in Seaville never had before … like pesto sauce. It sounds silly but people just didn’t know that pasta could be cooked with a basil sauce and pine nuts. We would take balsamic and reduce it to it was so sweet and put it on our salads. No one caramelized balsamic down here 25 years ago. So between our experiments and introducing recipes that were in the family, people learned what great Italian food was here.”

Massaglia learned how to cook in Italy at his mother’s side, literally. Growing up in northwest Italy in a small town called Brozolo in the Piedmont region near the France and Switzerland borders, Massaglia was “raised next to my mother’s skirt in the kitchen.”

His parents owned a trattoria there, but he fell in love working summers on the bay in Portofino, where he started as dishwasher at 13 years old and eventually graduated to cooking.

“You have to have passion to cook and be a humble cook to start,” Massaglia says. “I think you have to start with dishwashing pots and pans and getting your hands dirty … and I did that a long time.”

Massaglia later worked for the acclaimed Italian hotel group CIGA and then received his education on the “real love boat,” the MS Pacific, which was later called the Pacific Princess.

“It was just overall amazing exposure to food,” Massaglia says. “From food service to garde manger to ice sculpture to food instruction to cooking … it was great knowledge.”

On his very last cruise in 1975, Massaglia changed his mind about going back to Italy to open his own restaurant after he met his future wife Christine.

“I met this beautiful brunette with green eyes,” Massaglia says. “I came to Philadelphia to visit her as a tourist in 1975 and I’m still here. Now we have four children — three girls and a boy — and none of them want to be in the food business. And I don’t blame them. You have to have passion and stamina. It’s tough. But the secret to success in this business is that it has to come from inside you.”

Massaglia brought more than luggage and love for a beautiful woman to the United States. He brought tons of experience and a heritage full of recipes that can be tasted in his restaurants today.

His mother Bertina and brother Giovanni opened La Grolla in Philadelphia, and one of their family recipes — now named Tortellini Pavarotti — was made for opera great Luciano Pavarotti in 1976 at that restaurant. And that recipe – cheese tortellini with thyme, sage, herbs, artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, white wine cream and parmigiano cheese reduction — is still being made at Mama Mia’s.

“We always have traditional recipes from the regions of Italy, but we definitely gravitate toward northern Italian cuisine,” Massaglia says. “Pavarotti was looking for a great Italian restaurant after he performed in Philadelphia and he ended up at our family restaurant. And my mother made this recipe for him and it’s been amazing for us ever since.”

Other longtime classics include roasted red pepper polenta Bagna Cauda ($9), Massaglia’s hometown recipe of fresh roasted red peppers over polenta bagna sauce; penne “My Way” ($22) with sautéed shrimp or chicken, garlic, olive oil, caramelized onions, mushrooms, hot peppers, gorgonzola cheese and white wine sage cream sauce; the famous Penne Mama ($19) with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, sage, prosciutto, caramelized onions, peas, cognac, marsala wine and a rosa sauce; homemade gnocchi ($20) in a variety of sauces including Bava, a popular northern Italian recipe with butter sage cream sauce, fontina cheese and broccoli.

For entrees, you will always find the Carre Di Agnello ($27), stone-grilled rack of lamb encrusted with herb bread crumbs, shallots, glazed honey Dijon mustard and a brown sauce complemented with risotto; Pollo alla Olive Urcia ($21), sautéed chicken breast in a white wine, green olive sauce garnished with sundried tomatoes and sliced black olives; and the bouillabaisse ($27) with shrimp, clams, mussels, scallops and fish in a sauce made with shaved fennel, vegetables, white wine anise, bouillon herbs, tomato and saffron served over linguini with grilled garlic bread.

Massaglia still loves to experiment in the kitchen, particularly with his entrees. but one of his most stellar creations is Clams Julio ($11), an appetizer featuring a broth you can drink like a soup made with wine broth, pancetta, caramelized onions, roasted peppers and topped with toasted parmesan herb crumbs. Other recent experiments include Gnocchi Boscaiola ($20) with rosemary, sage, ground sausage, red wine and buffalo mozzarella; Valdostana Al Marsala ($21) boneless pork loin stuffed with ham, grueyere, fontina and mozzarella cheeses, breaded with panko crumbs and served in a marsala mushroom sauce; Bracciole di Verona ($22) beef bracciole sausage with wild mushrooms, roasted garlic, fresh herb bread crumbs and brown tomato red wine sauce served with ravioli and polenta; and the Salmon Farcito Petrale ($23), salmon filled with shrimp crab mornay over roasted red peppers and spinach in a white wine lemon sauce.

Insiders know to ask for Cotechino Modena, a sausage imported from Modena, Italy, that Massaglia says only he and Iron Chef Mario Batali carry in their restaurants in the United States.

“It’s not on our menu, but we make it with lentils or garlic mashed potatoes,” Massaglia says. “Mario Batali is the only person other than myself who has it here. Items like that help me educate people little by little. I’m getting old; I’m not a young chef anymore, but little things like that still get me excited.”

But some things, no matter how experimental Massaglia wants to be, cannot change.

“I have been giving away bruschetta as a kind gesture ever since I opened,” he explains with a laugh. “And I was thinking, ‘Hey, the tomatoes are costing me $25 and the herbs and garlic and bread, I think I am giving away too much. I am going to stop it.’ And people told me, ‘You stop giving the bruschetta, we won’t be back.’ So I still offer it complimentary.”

That value — along with great food — is what keeps people coming back, Massaglia says.

“People always have and always will want value,” he says. “When you come here, you get the bruschetta, then you get a house salad, then with entrees you get a side of pasta and vegetable included in the price. In other places, you pay $20 for an entrée and then by the time you add everything, you’re over $30. It’s old-fashioned, but it works for us.”

Lunch and takeout remain vital parts of Mama Mia’s success. Brick-oven pizzas include the Florentine Quattro Formaggio ($14, $18), with spinach, roasted peppers and four cheeses, and the 12-inch Cape May Creole ($12) with grilled chicken, gorgonzola cheese, red peppers and pine nuts. A wide array of subs, paninis and finger foods complement pasta dishes that are available in Mama Mia’s trademark party trays.

Massaglia’s entrepreneurial spirit has certainly not been confined to Seaville. He opened Trattoria Giuseppe in Stone Harbor, which lasted from 1992 to 1994; Mama Mia’s in Salem in the 1990s, which was purchased by the Amato family and is now called Amato’s Mama Mia’s; and Mama Mia’s in Egg Harbor Township (see sidebar), which is another success story.

The local chef and business owner says he wants to work for five more years, retiring after 50 years in the business. He wants to spend more time with his grandchildren, including 2-year-old Isabel, who already loves to cook. And he wants to travel and do the things retirees do. But first, he wants to keep experimenting and reinventing without ever losing focus on what keeps him successful.

“I look forward to passing this business on to some young chef who shares the same passion and excitement I do and who can keep Mama Mia’s thriving,” Massagia says. “You always have to be creative and come up with new ideas. The ingredients you use are mostly the same, but how you combine things together is what keeps the excitement going and gives you that little high you get when you create something great. I am getting ready to throw in the towel and I want a successor to be able to carry on what I started. I want to leave a legacy.”

Same great food in EHT

Joseph Massaglia opened his second Mama Mia’s in 2009, this time as a boutique Italian eatery with just 25 seats.

Building on the reputation he created in Seaville, his Mama Mia’s sequel has been successful since opening, offering an upscale experience in the evening with takeout and a casual lunch being a foundation for the business, offering pizzas, pastas, subs and more.

In the hallway of Mama Mia’s you’re transported to the Italian village of Portofino, with its faux windows and Italian architecture. In the dining room, a huge mural of Portofino — the town where Massaglia fell in love with the food business — is surrounded by hues and a classy ambience.

The menu changes to reflect fresh ingredients, and you can usually find fish such as bronzino roasted as a special and fileted tableside.

“It’s a very small place and that’s the way I want to keep it,” says Massaglia, who plans to renovate the restaurant this year. “It’s a small place where people know they can bring a great bottle of wine and share it with great food.”