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Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, R.I. Puts a Different Spin on the Typical Pizza Place

Owner Ken Martin's life was never pre-made, so why should the pizza, wraps, grinders and pasta dishes be at this one-of-a-kind local gem?

Ken Martin spins a pizza at his restaurant, Carmella's in Middletown, R.I.
Ken Martin, owner of Carmella's Pizzeria, spins a pizza.

Article and photos, unless otherwise noted, by Eric Hurwitz. Article created on 4/27/2019.

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What do you call a pizza place with an owner who possesses a deep classic French culinary background and ties to renowned chefs and restaurants worldwide?

Carmella's Pizzeria on Aquidneck Island in Middletown, R.I.

This is no joke, however. Carmella's owner Ken Martin takes his job so seriously -- and to an art form -- that his pizzeria has little in common with others within this food genre. His modest, homey restaurant has received local "best of" awards (including Newport Life and Rhode Island Monthly) with regularity over the past several years as proof of Carmella's greatness. A truer indication, however, doesn't ultimately come down to the lists of recognition. Rather, it is about how Martin created a slice of small business greatness, the presence of his hard-working employees and the everyday people who can taste first-hand the freshly made pizzas, pasta, grinders, wraps and salads.

Chicken pesto pizza from Carmella's Pizzeria in Midletown, R.I.
Margarita pizza from Carmella's.

"Kenny is fresh, but Carmella's is even fresher," laughed longtime Carmella's employee D.J. Gomes, in reference to Martin and the made-from-scratch food.

Saying the food at fresh at Carmella's is not just words or some self-promotional bumper sticker slogan; they are an every day reality at Carmella's for lunch and dinner. They make their own meatballs at the rate of about 80 lbs. per week, as well as going through 170 lbs. of fresh chicken every seven days. The pasta is dipped in olive oil and salted in water and baked in an oven with Carmella's homemade sauces. The salads are made from the green leaf, romaine and Arcadian baby leaf lettuce and made fresh to order. Baptista Bakery in Bristol, R.I. brings in fresh, homemade bread daily, used for the grinders.

Fresh bread brought in daily from Baptisto Bakery in Bristol, R.I., to Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, R.I.
Fresh bread just brought in from Bapitsta Bakery in Bristol, R.I.

Martin might have even more ink from the press than on his arms, but that doesn't let things go to his head. Talkative and outspoken but deep at his core humble, hard-working, honest and giving, Martin goes that proverbial extra mile -- or maybe, metaphorically speaking, going into overdrive for a day trip to the highest peaks in New England -- to make sure his pizza place isn't like any others.

"This is not the norm in the pizza world," said Martin. "We believe in the integrity of the food."

Carmella's also might just deserve a place in Ripley's Believe it or Not for being a pizza place that has no fried foods on the menu. That even goes for the appetizers and chicken and eggplant parms, which often go through a frying process at similar type eateries.

Baked eggplant parm grinder from Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, R.I.
Eggplant parmigiana grinder from Carmella's Pizzeria.

"You will not see any fried foods here, EVER," said Martin. "That's not what we do and never will."

How Martin's working class and classically trained culinary roots led to Carmella's Pizzeria

Good food sign at Carmella's in Middletown, R.I.
Positive messages abound at Carmella's.

Well before Carmella's opens, Martin, 60, is all alone in the dining room scrubbing tables until they are spotlessly clean. He lays down placemats and starts rolling dough. He never stops talking, whether to D.J. or fellow employee Tim or to himself as reminders on what to do next. Pizza will be made for the local YMCA where Carmella's serves 40 to 50 pizzas a month.

"Some kids are sent to the Y without food," said Martin. "They have nothing to be sent with them from home. Sociologically, they are not there. Do you know what a feeling it is to see that? Our customers ask for and need help. We are here to help."

Martin grew up in Wolcott, Conn., the son of parents who owned a local diner. He always had an interest in food.
Martin's next door neighbor was a corporate chef and helped get him a job the Hartford Hilton in Hartford, Conn. when he was 15-years old. Elvis Presley was at the hotel one weekend and Martin was peeling shrimp in the kitchen for The King of Rock and Roll!

Martin went on to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. with training in classic French cuisine. From 1979 to 1985, Martin traveled the world working at Germaine Catering in Long Island City, N.Y., two apprenticeships in France at esteemed one star Michelin establishments and with internationally recognized French chef Andre Soltner at Lutece, a famous French restaurant in New York City. Martin gleaned the value of hard work being in the presence of Soltner, who reportedly missed only five days of work in his 34 years at Lutece.

The wear and tear of the demanding big city restaurant scene, however, resulted in Martin moving to Jamestown. R.I. in 1986. He first worked as a cook with executive chef Dan Knerr
at the Black Pearl restaurant in Newport, R.I.  (Knerr once ran L'Espanaise with famed chef Todd English in New York City).

Martin opened the Newport Grille with a partner in 1989 but then went back to work for Germaine Catering for a while. He returned to Rhode Island as a chef instructor at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I. and was voted best instructor by the students five times. During that time, Soltner walked in one day and spoke the world of Martin to the Johnson and Wales dean of culinary studies, according to Ken!

Then, Martin met the developer of the Walmart shopping area in North Kingston, R.I., and opened Martino's in 1999 -- a 90 seat restaurant with beer and wine. Going through a trial and error period to find his true niche, Martin decided to leave Martino's and "bounced around doing landscaping jobs." He got back in the restaurant industry opening Carmella's in 2002. He later moved Carmella's to Middletown. The Portsmouth location is now Martino's (not owned by Ken).

Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, R.I.
Carmella's Pizzeria.

Carmella's embodies what Martin ultimately wanted -- that is, a smaller, more intimate type family-friendly restaurant specializing in pizza ("I've always loved pizza!) with more control over the product and a staff in it for the long-run instead of that of a high turnover rate. It's a long way from the lobster, caviar and goose liver he once prepared and the celebrities he served (Grace Jones, Caroll O' Connor, Walter Cronkite, Christopher Reeve), but Ken wouldn't have it any other way.

"I always loved pizza," said Ken.
"I love it here in Rhode Island, and was just tired of what I was doing in New York."

Ken obviously takes great pride in creating outstanding food but recognizes his staff as the reason Carmella's has survived.

"If I didn't have my staff, we wouldn't be able to continue our business," said Martin. "That's why we are so successful. What's missing  (in restaurants) today are the personalities. It's almost like robots are running restaurants these days."

DJ Gomes makes a fresh salad at Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, R.I.
D.J. Gomes prepares to make a salad.

From the kitchen to the dining room

The dining room offers a comfortable setting, courtesy of Ken's wife Meredith, a health and wellness specialist who has a natural talent for design ideas. Black wood paneling and chairs, copper top tables, attractive hanging lights and floral touches help provide that nice atmosphere.

Dining room at Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, R.I.
The cheerful dining room at Carmella's Pizzeria.

Thoughtful touches abound in the restaurant with positive welcoming messages on the placemats, napkin holders, at the order counter and on the walls.

Napkin holder with a positive message at Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, Conn.
Even on the napkin and silverware holders!

In the kitchen, the process of creating foods serve as a reminder of the elements that make the final products so wonderfully tasty.

There's the homemade sauce made from plum tomatoes...

Homemade sauce made from plum tomatoes at Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, R.I.
Homemade tomato sauce.

And the meatballs...

Meatballs being made fresh at Carmella's in Middletown, R.I.
Meatballs being made.

Once cooked, the meatballs take on a mouthwatering form...

Homemade meatballs from Carmella's in Middletown, R.I.
Yummy meatballs are fresh out of the oven. Photo source: Carmella's Facebook page.

The caramelized onions also take on that mouthwatering effect...

Caramelized onions from Carmella's in Middletown, R.I.
Caramelized onions.

While every category of food here yields something special, pizza reigns as a most popular dish. Carmella's offers traditional, thin crust and artisan pizzas, the latter consisting of a thicker and chewy version of the traditional. They also feature specialty pizzas like the Margarita, pesto chicken and the Carmella's (fresh basil, mascarpone, goat cheese and Parmesan), as well as white pizzas.

Chicken pesto pizza from Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, R.I.
Chicken pesto pizza.

Martin regards pizza as an art form and takes great care with each step in the process. In addition to the hand-spun homemade sauce from plum tomatoes and in-house hand-tossed dough, Martin uses high-quality Grande whole milk mozzarella cheese (from Wisconsin) and added cornmeal for the crust.

Showing the care that goes into Carmella's food in Middletown, RI
Attention to detail at Carmella's.

Regarding toppings, Carmella's doesn't exactly skimp...

Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, RI doesn't exactly skimp on pizza toppings.
Lots of toppings can be found on Carmella's pizzas.
Photo source: Carmella's Facebook page.

Ken is also realistic, knowing organic ingredients are often cost-prohibitive and don't always translate to a great-tasting pizza.

"If we went all organic, the pizzas would cost $50," said Martin. "It is really the integrity of the products and how we use them. We don't buy any bad products here."

Martin also knows that dough temperature is critical to making a good pizza, as well as the order of ingredients on the pie.

"We take an open pie, sauce it and put the toppings underneath the cheese," said Martin. "The flavor is better that way. When you put something like pepperoni on top, it cups and becomes greasy. We all have been there. Not here, though."

Pepperoni pizza from Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, R.I.
Pepperoni pizza from Carmella's.
Photo source: Carmella's Facebook page.

The pizza is cooked at 650 degrees in a stone oven, the final step in creating a phenomenal pie.

Meat pizza from Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, R.I.
Meat pizza from Carmella's.

Martin also highly recommends the Spicy Shrimp wrap with Cajun spices, tamari, cilantro, banana peppers, provolone, tomatoes, lettuce and Frank's Red Sauce. It's absolutely delicious -- nothing like it!

Spicy shrimp wrap from Carmella's in Middletown, R.I.
Spicy shrimp wrap.

Given the way they are prepared, the pasta has more in common with the North End of Boston and Federal Hill in Providence than the typical pizza places. Case-in-point: the chicken parmigiana...

Chicken parmigiana from Carmella's in Middletown, R.I.
Chicken parm entree.
Photo source: Carmella's Facebook page.

On the other hand, grinders like the Italian make it tough to make a final decision on what to eat at Carmella's...

Italian grinder from Carmella's in Middletown, R.I.
The Italian.
Photo source: Carmella's Facebook page.

The Caesar salad is about as good as it gets for this type of salad with fresh greens, sprinkled Parmesan and homemade salad dressing, as well as tasty croutons...

Caesar salad from Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, R.I.
Caesar salad.

Carmella's also creates gluten free options for those with allergies and other sensitivities. Additionally, Carmella's caters -- one of the best kept secrets on Aquidneck Island. Ken has a special niche for catering to visiting sports teams and enjoys creating personalized menus for private functions. During his time in New York City, Ken catered Givenchy designer clothing store and Cartier and Harry Winston jewelers!

"We love Carmella’s," said local resident Lindsey Manucal. "We tried it for the very first time when they hosted a fundraiser for the youth group from Ocean Pointe Church. Loved getting to try out a new pizza place and will continue to eat there because it was delicious. My whole family enjoyed it."


Carmella's in Middletown is such a welcoming place.
Carmella's has a welcoming feel everywhere you look.

Ken, unfortunately, suffered a stroke recently. He is recovering well and shows little sign of letting this serious setback affect him. He is energetic, has an eagle eye on restaurant operations and treats staff like family. He truly loves his job by creating food for the locals and travelers in Middletown, Newport and the surrounding area.

"I'm doing my best," said Ken. "I'm still here, right? That has to be a good sign."

Kenny Martin, owner of Carmella's in Middletown, R.I.
Martin takes a very brief break from a busy day at Carmella's.

Out of the blue after a series of tasks that go right between Ken and staff, he shouts out "Who loves you, baby?" While that line originated with TV detective Theo Kojak (Telly Savales) in Kojak, it doesn't take a detective to figure out the genius behind Carmella's success: Show care and concern for your fellow human being and if you are going into the food business, be sure to do things the right way.

Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, R.I., has a high employee retention rate.
Carmella's Pizzeria has high employee retention.

Ken is very different from some of the hobbyists and capitalists without a clue who open pizza places. Yes, his food background helps, but, on the other hand, how many classically trained chefs do we know that become so complicated and attitudinal with their craft that they can't connect to their customership? Ken has that rare gift of just being a regular guy who is able to communicate through his honest, straightforward words and his delicious food.

It is heartwarming that Ken communicates so fondly about his family, too, talking about five-year-old Leo and his athletic abilities and Luc, 15, who shows a strong work ethic when working at Carmella's during the summer. About wife Meredith, Ken said, "She is an inspiration. The love, consistency, giving and kindness." Minutes after saying that, Ken heads out the door at noon to meet a family obligation before returning to the restaurant in the early afternoon.

While Ken has a necessary amount of self-promotion in his many of his words describing Carmella's, those thoughts come from a strong belief in his small business. Consider the following words straight from the heart more than anything else:

"If you are not eating at Carmella's, you are not eating."

Many customers would agree!

Carmella's Pizzeria is located at 330 West Main St., Middletown, RI. Tel.  401-847-2424.
Log onto Carmella's Pizzeria Web Site, Facebook Fan Page and Instagram Page for more information.

Carmella's Pizzeria in Middletown, R.I.

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