Pizza queen says farewell

Rosa Santo in front of her pizzeria. 250833_15 Photos: STEWART CHAMBERS

For over 32 years, Rosa Santo has fed generations of Pakenham and surrounding residents, welcoming everyone into her pizzeria with a warm smile. But now it’s time for her to close that chapter in her life, as she sells the business, as SHELBY BROOKS reports.

“When you’re cooking you have to use a bit of wine, I don’t use fat or grease or butter, I tend to use a drop of wine and because you’re probably not relaxed, maybe you should have half a glass while you’re cooking!“

Mama Rosa Pizza Ristorante opened in 1989, one of only three pizza restaurants in Pakenham at the time.

Rosa, who grew up in Italy, bought the business and opened the weekend of the Pakenham Show.

Back then, it was open seven days a week for lunch and dinner and attracted people all across the district looking for an authentic Italian feed.

Mama Rosa Pizza also became known as a place to get authentic coffee.

“I was the first and only one with a coffee machine, now look at how many cafes are in Pakenham,” Rosa said.

Located at a different premise, in the early days even the local police frequented Rosa’s shop.

“Police would hang around my shop all the time because the police station was in walking distance,” Rosa recalled.

Rosa was born into the hospitality industry, helping her family in Italy in various businesses.

“My parents had a butcher and I was five years old and very capable, Mum used to go out and said she would be back in 10 minutes,” Rosa said.

“The military would come for Mum’s meats because she was very good.

“If Mum took a while, I’d entertain them, they wouldn’t dare go to the opposition- they would never leave Mum. Sometimes I would start mincing the meat, on my little chair. That’s how it was.

“I was born into business.”

Rosa first came to Australia in 1972 with her mother on a holiday visiting family who had already emigrated from Italy.

“My grandfather came home to Italy when I was seven, he was bribing my Mum, he said ‘I’ll give you however much you ask me, if I can have Rosa come to Australia. I just want her to cook my meals for me, I’ll send her to school’,” Rosa said.

“He used to love my cooking. I used to be a good cook at seven years old.

“My mum said ‘no, what would I do without her?’ and I wouldn’t have left my Mum.”

When she was 13, Rosa and her Mum moved permanently to Australia.

By 1979, Rosa began working at a pizza shop on Glen Huntly Road Elsternwick.

“Sometimes I get customers here who have moved from up that way, they see the way that I do the pizza and they say ’there used to be a pizza shop in Elsternwick…’ that’s where I learned!” Rosa said.

Rosa’s credits her good cooking to passion.

She recalled a time when she shared a pasta recipe with the local farmer’s market.

“A couple of older people tried the recipe. They came back to the shop and said, ‘Rosa, we did exactly what you did but it doesn’t taste the same’,” she said.

“First of all, when you cook, you need to be relaxed. You have to love cooking, you can’t just cook for the sake of cooking.

“When you’re cooking you have to use a bit of wine, I don’t use fat or grease or butter, I tend to use a drop of wine and because you’re probably not relaxed, maybe you should have half a glass while you’re cooking!

“The couple came back the next day and said, ‘my God I’m 80 years of age, I learnt this after how many years, this does work!’.”

Rosa still loves cooking and recently has enjoyed expanding her menu to include vegan options.

“Recently we got a bigger menu, and I’m creating vegan options for pastas and biscuits,” she said.

“If you go onto Facebook it’s amazing what people write about my vegan cooking.”

But after all these years, Rosa has decided she needs to finally put her health first.

“I’m a cancer survivor. I only stopped working for one month while doing chemo. But I need a few more operations and they said they won’t operate unless I stop working for two months,” Rosa said.

“I have to put health before the shop.

“I have a lot of memories over the years here.”

Rosa recalled lots of people getting engaged in the restaurant and even hosting a few weddings.

“A lot of people got engaged here. Sometimes I had to hide their ring in something. It was fun,” she said.

“Sometimes when walking down the street I don’t recognise the kids but they say, ‘oh I know you Rosa, my Mum used to bring me into the shop all the time’ and now they’re married with kids now and they remember me.

“And a lot of people still follow the rules I had here with the kids.

“You weren’t allowed to have a soft drink before your meal, that was the rule and people say they still have those rules for their kids now.”

​Lastly Rosa would like to give a heartfelt thank you to all her customers for their support throughout the years, she has been so proud to serve and get to know them over the years.

“it has been an absolute pleasure,“ she said.

“I will forever cherish all the memories fondly.“