Pizzeria Owner Loved Bringing People Together
Fred Poulos, the founder of Mombo’s Pizza who popularized New York-style pizza in Sonoma County and trained a generation of pizzaiolos, died Sunday, June 14 after a battle with cancer. He was 67.
In a food culture where novelty is always a headline, Poulos’ simple, family-friendly pizzerias rarely got the press they deserved despite being one of Santa Rosa and Sebastopol’s most popular Friday night traditions.
Like most restaurateurs, hospitality was a calling, and the Massachusetts-native spent a lifetime learning his craft and opening popular eateries. But what Poulos most loved was sharing those experiences and hard-won lessons with thousands of staff members he mentored over the years.
In a recent interview before his death, Poulos said that one of his greatest joys throughout his life were frequent calls from former staff members scattered around the world.
“They remember the time we spent together. It’s very fulfilling,” he said. “I’m moving on, but it just lights me up to be thought of as a person who helped people with their futures,” he said.
That mentorship included longtime Mombo’s manager Drew Peletz, who purchased Poulos’ Santa Rosa and Sebastopol stores in February. The Santa Rosa location has been closed since March 1, with a planned remodel grinding to a halt during shelter-in-place orders, but is expected to reopen this summer. Sebastopol remains open.
“From the day I started, he would tell me, ‘This could all be yours someday’,” said Peletz. “He taught me a lot about the pizza business, the East Coast style, the dough, the recipes, the sauce, and his desire to have the highest quality. We’re carrying on his legacy.”
“I think what sticks out most to me was his passion for food. He was so happy to see people excited and to get together to eat something. He wanted his restaurants to bring people together,” he said.
A lively storyteller who grew up outside Boston, Poulos’ got his start at pizzerias and delis on near his home. He returned to those roots many times over the years, including a stint at Fellini’s in Rhode Island where he worked with legendary pizzaiolo Paul Schneider — a man now immortalized as the pork-pie hat-wearing cartoon character that has become an iconic part of the Mombo’s brand.
Poulos was also a founder of the iconic Pizza My Heart in Santa Cruz with Keith Holtaway in the 1980s, bringing New York slices to California beach-goers. Many Northern California pizza operators can trace their lineage back to that spot, including champion pizzaiolo Leah Scurto who recently opened PizzaLeah in Windsor.
After his departure in 1990, Poulos operated several restaurants in New Mexico but ultimately wanted to return to California to raise a family with his wife, Marianna.
On a day trip to Sonoma County, the couple immediately knew they’d found a home with their then-infant daughter, Giovanna. In fact, it was the now-20-year-old Giovanna who, as a young child, babbled the name “Mombo” that ended up becoming the moniker for Poulos’ restaurants.
In 2002, after a false start with a restaurant in Occidental, Poulos found the Santa Rosa space Mombo’s still occupies in the Junior College neighborhood. Almost immediately he found an audience for his authentic New York style pizza — still rare in Northern California at that time.
Poulos described those heady days, saying, “It was so perfect. There were so many people there and nothing like it. We wanted to make it affordable, and have people love it,” said Poulos. “So many people recognized our pizza from Pizza My Heart in Santa Cruz. It built up a huge buzz and I needed to do another one near where we live in Sebastopol.” That outpost opened in 2005.
Through the years, the Poulos and his family spent time traveling to far off locations, but always returned home to the restaurants — and staff — he loved.
“ I just like to be thought of as a person who is helping people with their futures,” the pizzeria owner said recently.
Recalling a recent afternoon her husband spent with Peletz and a few favorite staff members on his porch, Marianna said, “He was beaming, he was so proud and excited about their future. That filled his heart.”
The family has not announced any public services.