Before Taster’s Pizza opened at the Snowmass Center, Mama Maria’s was a locals’ favorite.
Snowmass Village’s first pizzeria and fast-food restaurant, it operated in two different locations at the Snowmass Center from 1979 to 1995 — and its legacy still stands as a good example of how Snowmass’ most popular businesses have traditionally been mom-and-pop operations that focused on establishing long-term relationships with locals and visitors.
Mike Sura and Maria Maniscalchi were a married couple living back East, north of Detroit, in the mid-1970s. Also the owner of a gas station on Interstate 75, Sura was working for a division of American Cement, the company that first developed Snowmass Ski Area in the late 1960s.
It was a buddy of Sura’s, Terry Long, who convinced the couple that Snowmass had a lot of opportunities. Snowmass Ski Area had opened in the prior decade, and lots of new homes and condominiums were being built on the slopes.
Not that it took much convincing. Sura had gone to college in Crested Butte in the early 1970s and was eager to return to the West. Maria had an Italian grandmother with old-school family recipes.
Sitting around a table and throwing out business ideas, they came up with the concept of fast food and pizza — and before long, Mama Maria’s opened as a small pizzeria in the Snowmass Center in a hallway space next to the stairs. At that time, a franchise of Pour la France operated a larger restaurant in the more prominent street-facing space.
And so, in 1979, Snowmass had its first pizzeria.
For the first couple of years, Sura and Maniscalchi continued living in Detroit, while Long operated and managed Mama Maria’s for them.
“It was my grandmother’s recipe for pizza, and we did hoagies, salads, pasta,” Maniscalchi recalled. “We were pretty much kind of like what Taster’s is now, so in some ways, Mama Maria’s was the first Taster’s.”
Changing up the recipe
Sura explained how he bought all the equipment for the business from a warehouse in Detroit, then hauled it all out to the Roaring Fork Valley in a trailer behind a Bronco — burning out the brakes on Independence Pass and limping into Aspen in the nick of time.
In 1979, Snowmass had restaurants. But according to Sura and Maniscalchi, the town didn’t have any family restaurants, and there wasn’t any place to buy pizza. It took some time before Mama Maria’s was able to change that; the original Mama Maria’s was only a takeout and delivery operation. It wasn’t until they moved into the larger front space that they had chairs and tables for dining.
Unlike the Snowmass Mall, which then much like today mainly catered to tourists, the Snowmass Center catered to the few locals who lived in town year-round and needed a grocery store and a post office.
“The center really wasn’t designed for tourists, if you think about it, and it never was,” Sura said. “I think it was designed to give our community certain functions, but Snowmass has never really had a town or a town center.”
After getting Mama Maria’s open, an early test for the new business was making pizza dough at 8,200 feet rather than at sea level, and they learned that high-altitude cooking required a slight change in the recipe for the dough.
Running a resort business also takes a certain amount of flexibility with staff, Sura said. He figures that over the years, Mama Maria’s had more than 300 employees.
Snowmass Village Police Chief Brian Olson worked at Mama Maria’s in the early 1980s when he was 22, along with his older brother.
Olson said he remembers his time being a deliveryman at Mama Maria’s fondly and enjoyed working with guys that went on to be local firemen in Snowmass.
“It was a great part-time job,” Olson remembered. “We had a lot of good guys as deliverymen, and we had a lot of fun.”
Long, the pizzeria’s initial manager, also went on to become a Snowmass staple. He’d later work for years at the Mountain Dragon, and he was instrumental in starting up Snowmass Village’s Thursday Night Concert series.
Maniscalchi said: “I just have a total appreciation for Snowmass and all the locals and hard workers who patronized us. It was so much fun in those days in Snowmass, and a lot of the time it was just locals.”
After a few years of owning and operating Mama Maria’s in Snowmass, they opened a Mama Maria’s in Aspen in the building across from Gondola Plaza, where Ink and Four Mountain Sports are currently located.
They did well in Aspen until Domino’s moved into town and began to sell finished pizzas for the same price that Mama Maria’s paid for the raw ingredients, so they sold that business to a Pizza Hut that didn’t operate for very long.
In the mid-1990s, the couple divorced, and Maria opened Thunder River Market and a new Mama Maria’s just outside Glenwood Springs, which she operated until she sold the business a couple of weeks ago.
“Forty-one years of Mama Maria’s is enough,” she quipped.
Mike Sura continues to live in Snowmass Village and currently serves on the town’s marketing, group sales and events board. A fan of live music, he can often be found at the Thursday Night Concerts on Fanny Hill, and he still skis “about 80 days a year.”
Both remain huge fans of Snowmass.
“The people here are great; the valley’s great,” Maniscalchi said. “This is a little paradise, and I feel fortunate to be able to still live here.”