Story and photos by Aaron Tanner
The little town of Woodville in Jackson County might be the last place you’d expect to find a restaurant that serves pizza made with love by a family from Chicago.
Joe’s Pizza is a small building with only a few places for sitting, both inside and outside, but it is big on cranking out delicious food to nearby residents who crowd the place for a nice take-home meal, and tourists accessing nearby kayaking, fishing and caving spots in this scenic region of northeast Alabama.
Manager Mary Thompson is hard at work, running the cash register, taking orders, making the food and talking with customers. In the back, Thompson’s parents, Alvaro and Diane Ramos, make the orders and operate the ovens. Due to the limited space, the majority of customers place their order to go either at the cash register or over the phone.
Although Thompson and her siblings were born and raised in the Windy City, their family has roots in the Paint Rock Valley. Her mother was born and raised in New Hope in nearby Madison County and her uncle lives in Woodville.
A mother’s dream
After spending many years in Chicago, Thompson and her immediate family moved to Woodville in 2000 to be closer to her mom’s family and hometown.
Her mom had a dream to open her own restaurant. Her years in Chicago – one of the nation’s holy cities for pizza – exposed her to a variety of pizza restaurants. She also wanted to work with family. The restaurant business may be in the blood; her brother, Thompson’s uncle, owned a restaurant of his own at the time.
In 2003, Thompson’s brother, Jose Vigenor, made mom’s dream come true by buying an old restaurant that served the community for many years. Today, Vigenor is the part owner of Joe’s Pizza. Many of Thompson’s family members, along with non-family members, have kept Joe’s Pizza going over the years.
Although there are challenges to working closely with family, Thompson would not have it any other way. “I wouldn’t work with anyone else,” she says. “We get a flow going.”
The pizza choices are simple at Joe’s – the only options are either adding toppings to a cheese pizza or ordering their legendary supreme pizza, which includes sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, green olives, black olives and anchovies. As the sign outside points out, the dough is made from scratch daily. The combination of fresh dough and ingredients makes Joe’s supreme pizza their best-selling item.
Another best-seller is the muffuletta. This giant sandwich includes a blend of sliced pastrami, ham, salami, pepperoni, Swiss cheese and olives. The juices from the meats and the tanginess of the olives melt together in the oven, bringing a bit of the Gulf Coast to the Cumberland Plateau.
Thompson’s mother decided to add the New Orleans staple to the menu after taking a trip to the city. “She tried one and she loved it, so she wanted to put it on the menu,” says Thompson, who takes pride in her muffulettas going toe to toe with those in larger cities.
Wings and catfish, too
Not in the mood for pizza or a sandwich? Joe’s also has homemade chicken wings, lasagna and spaghetti. Of course, no restaurant based in the South would be complete without southern fried catfish. Thompson says many are surprised when they see catfish on their menu, but it is a case of appealing to the local clientele. “It’s a Southern favorite, so we like to cater to our customers,” Thompson says.
Joe’s Pizza has gained many regulars over the years, thanks to great customer service and the friendly atmosphere. “I love meeting new people and getting to know their stories,” Thompson says. “It’s not just about cooking.”
Thompson points out that running a pizza restaurant in a small town like Woodville allows Joe’s to offer a quality product in an area served by few restaurants, and that the same process would be harder to replicate back in Chicago. “People (in Chicago) want what’s convenient,” Thompson says.
Many who travel through this region often pass by Joe’s Pizza before giving the place a try. “They (the customers) keep saying ‘we want to stop’,” says Thompson. “It’s kind of a hole-in-the-wall.”
But the number of cars that fill the gravel parking lot for lunch and dinner are proof enough that Joe’s Pizza is a place worth stopping by and eating like one of the “locals.”
6582 US Highway 72
Woodville, Ala. 35776
Hours: 3-8 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday;
3-8 p.m. Sunday