Pick Up a Slice and a Smile from Mama in Anacostia

A meat pizza comes out of the oven for one of the first orders of the day at Mama’s Pizza on Oct. 28, 2015. 

Seven days a week, 14 hours a day, the royal blue doors of Mama’s Pizza Kitchen are open. Serving lunch and dinner and addressing cravings for dessert in between, the owners of Anacostia’s small sit-down restaurant share smiles with the neighbors they serve. “Hi, how are you today?” said Fatma Nayir to the first person who stepped over the threshold on a recent rainy October morning. Nayir, “Mama” to the locals, knows the children, grandchildren, and families that share a meal at her tables. She and her husband Musa Ulusan commute from their Bethesda home each morning to support the Ward 8 community. “All the people show appreciation,” Nayir said. “It’s not just taking orders. I’m 100 percent emotionally satisfied here.”

Mama’s opened on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and V Street in 2012 after several years of business challenges for Nayir, her husband, and their four children. The 9/11 terrorist attacks brought unwanted scrutiny on her Muslim family, and Hurricane Katrina later wiped out the 100 or so chain restaurants they owned around New Orleans. Nayir moved her four children to DC in 2002 for a fresh start. Ulusan stayed behind to run what was left of the businesses and took flights twice a week to see their family.

It took time and negotiations with harsh landlords, but the two finally started Mama’s. “It was like 20 years back with no money, but this time we had experience,” Ulusan said. “This became more than a pizza shop for us. We wanted a community meeting place.”

The restaurant’s diverse, fresh-ingredient menu – house-made bread, pizza, calzones, sandwiches, wings, BBQ, cake – comes from the experiences of Nayir and Ulusan in the American food culture. Growing up in Turkey, though, they lived on traditional Mediterranean and Turkish tandoori-style dishes. On Christmas holiday she pulls all of the women from her local family into her kitchen to make ravioli-like meat pockets, garlic yogurt, and fresh tomato sauce.

After finishing her degree in architecture in 1987, Nayir joined Ulusan in Philadelphia. He had moved to the United States in 1979 to study engineering, but ended up in the restaurant business after he graduated. Nayir wanted a change, so the two traveled to the streets of jazz in New Orleans. “I was looking for something different,” she said. “I would just hear about New Orleans jazz. You would wake up in the morning to someone playing saxophone.”

But family comes first for the two entrepreneurs. When disaster threatened their livelihood and the children’s education, they found their new start in DC. Her eldest daughter, 22, attends Emory University and studies finance. She plans to help expand Mama’s and possibly open a coffee shop in the Anacostia area. Her youngest son, 15, still studies in high school but holds a job to keep himself almost financially independent of his parents. Each of Nayir’s children helps the family in any way they can, just as their parent’s help their community.

Nayir works hard to support her children and regrets the times she can’t leave Mama’s to see her eldest daughter’s Emory University soccer games and her youngest son’s high school activities. “If you’re taking away from your child, it’s not worth it,” Nayir said. “But at the same time, Mama’s is worth it. It’s not black and white.”

She said the children, moms, dads, and grandmothers that walk down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue for a slice all call her “Mama.” She takes care of them now like she cares for her own family. Friends she met through the restaurant offer her a ride when her car breaks down. They offer to fund installing security cameras to stop break ins. And unlike the isolated suburbs, their daily visits make her feel like a real, connected person, she said. “They express everything from the heart here,” Nayir said.

Even after robbers broke into Mama’s and stole food five times this year, she and Ulusan refuse to give up on the people they employ and serve in Ward 8. “We know this area is poor and changing,” Nayir said. “We just want to be a part of it. We don’t want to change it.”

Nayir and Ulusan don’t take vacations as they once did to visit family in Turkey. But they love movies and plan to spend a night away from Mama’s at the upcoming midnight showing of the new James Bond film. And when she gets a moment to herself, she sleeps.
Someday she hopes to introduce Anacostia and DC residents to her traditional Turkish meals. She and Ulusan always dreamed of opening a Turkish restaurant. First they want to focus on showing the community that they want to stay committed to bringing economic stability to the Ward 8. They are searching for ways to sponsor children’s activities and local events with any funds they can gather. “Mama’s will stay with our family and the community family,” Ulusan said.

“Mama” Fatma Nayir.
Nayir spreads fresh pizza sauce on a hand-stretched circle of dough on Oct. 28, 2015.
Nayir layers pepperoni slices on a Mama’s pizza. She works in the kitchen, at the counter and cleans after closing at her local Anacostia restaurant.
Mama’s Pizza on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Ward 8.