Operators Opt for Pasta and Pizza with a Canadian Twist

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Volume 47, Number 11

Written By: Mary Luz Mejia

[dropcap size=big]C[/dropcap]hefs and cooks across Canada are reinventing traditional pasta and pizza recipes and preparation methods with contemporary Canadian ideas. And, while the cost of ingredients has spiked in recent months, Chicago-based research firm Technomic’s 2014 “Canadian Pizza Consumer Trend Report,” shows pizza and pasta consumption has held relatively steady since 2012.

Pizza has been declining by 2.5 per cent on Canadian menus since last year, while pasta has been decreasing by 3.5 per cent during that same time, but that doesn’t mean the category is shrinking. “The main reason pizza has slightly decreased in menu prevalence over the past couple of years is because menus are shrinking, in general,” explains Jill Failla, associate editor, Consumer Research at Technomic, adding that restaurants are decreasing back-of-house operational costs to focus on their best-performing offerings. “I wouldn’t necessarily attribute it to the decreased popularity of Italian fare.” And, although healthy, low-carb diets are always a potential consideration for the decline in pasta and pizza, it’s not likely the primary cause. Healthy, non-carb categories such as salad (8.7 per cent) and chicken (3.2 per cent) have also seen declines on Canadian menus over the past year.

The bad news is Technomic’s 2014 “Canadian Pizza Consumer Trend Report” shows fewer Canadians are buying pizza for delivery at least once a month (numbers are down from 54 per cent in 2012 to 49 per cent in 2014). It seems consumers are getting their fix through frozen and carryout pizza options, which offer the quality, value and convenience they crave.
This means operators have to step up their game, and they’re doing that by serving pizza and pasta that offer a twist on the traditional.

The Menu
When Vancouver’s Campagnolo Restaurant opened in 2008, the menu was inspired by Northern Italian cooking. That was before chef de cuisine Nathan Lowey’s time, but he remembers hearing it was problematic. “People were confused and standoffish about ordering something they likely didn’t know how to pronounce,” he explains. This led the restaurant team to reinvent the menu to include Italian comfort food with Canadian inspirations.

That translates into dishes such as hybrid Canadian-Italian pizza. “It’s not a Neapolitan-style pizza; ours has a thicker crust, and we put a little more emphasis on the toppings,” says Lowey. The traditional Margherita ($14) recalls a childhood favourite, and customers “go crazy for” Campagnolo’s Natearoni pizza ($18), featuring house-made pepperoni and mushrooms topped with scamorza cheese. “It’s a more typically North American creation than a true Italian pizza,” admits Lowey. The other crowd-pleaser is the Salsiccia pizza (or sausage pizza, $17.50), topped with an Italian-style fennel sausage made in house and finished with arugula, chilies and Parmigiano Reggiano.

When it comes to pasta, the restaurant’s fan favourite is its classic Carbonara ($18). “Many would argue it’s not traditional, as we make it saucier and add red onions. The onions give the dish another flavour component, which complements the richness of the eggs and the strong black pepper flavour,” says Lowey. This reflects findings from Technomic. “Leading restaurants are creating more craveable Italian fusion fare by adding indulgent ingredients and bold flavours to pasta dishes,” says Failla.

In Calgary’s entertainment district, Cibo is further proof Technomic’s findings are true. It offers diners house-made gnocchi, which Jon Kennard, head chef, likens to a gnudi ($19). Served with spinach, artichoke, basil and ricotta salata, it’s the restaurant’s top seller and has been on the menu since day 1.

As for its pizza, Cibo’s dough is based on a ciabatta bread recipe developed in house. “It’s crunchy on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside. Our crust isn’t just a vessel for toppings,” says Kennard. The idea to differentiate the restaurant in an industry clamouring for more Neapolitan offerings has proven fruitful. “We’re as busy as ever, and the feedback on our pizza and food in general has been very positive,” Kennard adds.

But diners still expect more. Case-in-point: Campagnolo and Cibo offer gluten-free options keeping in line with Technomic’s 2014 “Canadian Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report.” It shows gluten-free is the preeminent health claim at the Top 250 chain restaurants and is also the fastest-growing health claim at leading limited-service restaurants. Campagnolo offers gluten-free pasta, made in house by using a blend of brown and white rice flours, xanthan gum and milk powder. At Cibo, chefs use the imported Pastificio La Rosa pasta from Italy, a decision made after trying more than 80 brands.

The menus at Cibo and Campagnolo are crowd-pleasing despite findings from Technomic’s 2014 “Canadian Pizza Consumer Trend Report,” which show Neapolitan-style pizza is popular across the country, with a third of consumers (34 per cent, up from 22 per cent in 2012) wanting more pizza restaurants to feature Naples-style pie.

That’s what Rocco Agostino, chef/partner at Toronto’s Pizzeria Libretto, gives his guests. “Guests at Libretto love the Margherita D.O.P. (Denominazione d’origine Protetta – denomination of protected origin) pizza ($14), as it is traditional and speaks to what makes Neapolitan pizza unique and desirable,” says Agostino. “It’s topped simply with tomato sauce, basil and mozzarella.” Agostino also likes to experiment with non-traditional ingredients. You’ll find kale, butternut squash and cauliflower on weekly pizza features ($14 to $17) as well as the popular Libretto Nduja Sausage Pizza ($17). The latter pie highlights cayenne-infused pork sausage made by local outfit Dolce Lucano featuring fresh basil, oregano, garlic and mozzarella. “Guests love this pizza; it’s packed with flavour, and the slight heat in the sausage is always a hit for diners looking for a little spice,” says Agostino.

Meanwhile, the Toronto-based Pizza Nova team unveiled Focaccia Barese ($7.99) three years ago. The oven-baked Italian bread, studded with Pachino-style tomatoes, roasted black olives and rubbed with extra virgin olive oil from Puglia, struck a chord. The chain was granted the permission and rights to offer this exclusive product with a protected geographical indication from the Consorzio Focaccia Barese. “We wanted to really accentuate something that is an authentic-style product from Italy. It’s widely liked,” says Domenic Primucci, president of Pizza Nova.
During the past 51 years, Pizza Nova has grown to include 140 outlets in Ontario. The dough recipe is based on dough Primucci’s father would have enjoyed in the Basilicata region of Italy. The San Marzano-style tomatoes are picked when vine-ripened and sealed within six hours of harvesting from California, and the cheese is 100-per-cent Canadian mozzarella. The company uses decked ovens with stones that heat up instead of the oft-preferred conveyor system; the former creates a crispy crust, which resonates with customers.
Top sellers include traditional pepperoni pizza ($8.48 to $10.49), but adventurous diners turn to specialty options such as the Portobellissimo with hot sopressata sausage, asiago cheese and portobello mushrooms ($15.66 to $18.94). These toppings are also available on a gluten-free crust and a vegan option featuring Vancouver’s Daiya Foods’ dairy-free cheese products. Gluten-free is a growing sector for Pizza Nova; sales of its gluten-free pizza have risen between five and six per cent.

Cost Considerations
Peddling pizza and pasta continues to be a challenge, as the price of cheese and flour is on the rise, causing many operators to monitor costs closely. According to a Toronto Star article written by Vanessa Lu in October 2014, pasta prices are spiking due to bad weather, which damaged crops last year. Quoted in the piece is Salvatore Cofone, president of Queen’s Pasta in Etobicoke, Ont. According to Cofone, in May 2014, he paid $32 for 40 kilograms of semolina flour. Last October, the price for that same amount of flour had risen to $37.40.
At Campagnolo and Cibo, costs are monitored as the menus change. “We have always been cost- and value-conscious given that Campagnolo opened during the height of the recession in 2008,” says Lowey. “Our whole-hog butchery program and the fact that we make 99 per cent of our products in house give us a lot of pricing flexibility.” Agostino says there hasn’t been a price increase at Pizzeria Libretto in the six years since it opened; he absorbs the costs, which are likely offset by the swell of guests who line up to eat at his popular restaurants.

Pizza Nova reviews menu costs yearly, ensuring secure, contract pricing from suppliers offsets its prices, which may be adjusted by two to three per cent depending on the item; the last increase was implemented in August, says Primucci.Despite obstacles, the future of pasta and pizza in Canada will likely remain traditionally inspired. “Canadians are showing more interest in authentic Italian cuisine but have not completely tired of craveable Italian-inspired comfort,” says Technomic’s Failla. Luckily many restaurants across Canada are ahead of the curve.