She was the infectious smile that greeted customers at Athens Pizza for 40 years, but Asiemoula Papadopoulos was much more than that.
“She was ahead of her time ... the epitome of the modern woman,” said her youngest son, Sandy Papadopoulos, who now runs the north Decatur restaurant opened by his parents in 1977.
Born 81 years ago in what was then the Soviet republic of Georgia, Asiemoula “Mama P” Papadopoulos died July 19 while swimming in the Tolo Bay in Greece, her ancestral home. She had summered there for the last 20 or so years, a well-deserved respite from a lifetime of hard work, and hard knocks.
Asiemoula never knew her father, who was sent to Siberian prison in 1937, part of Soviet ethnic cleansing. She was 12 years old when her mother learned, from a fellow prisoner in Siberia who had escaped, that her father had been executed.
"After that she put on a black dress and never took it off, " Asiemoula Papadopoulos said of her mother in a 2006 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In 1939, Asiemoula escaped to Greece with her mother and four siblings. There, she would eventually meet her late husband, John Papadopoulos, who was born in Ukraine and had also fled Stalin’s ruthless crackdown on the Greek community.
The young couple moved to Massachusetts in 1963 with two young sons and $300 in their pocket, Sandy Papadopoulos said.
John Papadopoulos worked nights in a tool-and-dye factory and picked up some extra money working days at a pizzeria. Three years later, he took the first of many successful risks, paying the owner of the restaurant where he worked $1,000 for his pizza recipe, Sandy Papadopoulos said.
“Risk was everything to them,” he said. “They felt like if they didn’t take a chance, they wouldn’t make it.”
The couple opened the first Athens Pizza in Putnam, Conn., in 1966 and soon prospered. Ten years later, they sold everything and moved back to Greece.
But retirement was not for them, Sandy Papadopoulos said.
Shortly after, while visiting a relative, the Papadopouloses saw opportunity in Atlanta — another risk that would soon pay off.
Last Wednesday marked Athens Pizza’s 40th anniversary in Atlanta, one week after Mama P passed away.
The front booth where she held court remains empty.
“I’ll be damned if I ever let anyone sit in that seat,” Sandy Papadopoulos said. “When people came in she made them feel like they were eating at her home.”
Since learning of Mama P’s death, customers have streamed into the Clairmont Road institution. Tributes to her outsized legacy fill Athens Pizza’s Facebook page.
“Every time I visited Athens Pizza, it was like being in the presence of a queen,” customer Shirley Banks wrote.
Sandy Papadopoulos has been there only once since his mother’s passing.
“I couldn’t go in the next day,” he said. “I’m still numb. I can’t believe my mom is gone.”
He takes some solace knowing that she died in a place close to her heart, doing something she loved.
“Any person who has crossed my mother’s path has been affected by her,” Sandy Papadopoulos said. “She had no enemies. If you got her upset, you must’ve done something wrong.”
Asiemoula Papadopoulos’ funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Clairmont Road.