Pandemic Forces Pizzeria Libretto Ownership Team to Think Outside the Box


By Rosanna Caira

TORONTO — When COVID-19 hit more than a year ago, the restaurant world came to a sudden and screeching halt, forcing operators to close their doors almost overnight. Eventually, as restaurants were deemed essential services, some operators managed to re-open their doors and, for a limited time, even continue their business through patio dining. And while sales decreased in some businesses from 30 to 70 per cent, many operators in the pizza category managed to fare better than many others.

For Rocco Agostino, co-founder and co-owner of Pizzeria Libretto and Enoteca Sociale, the pandemic fuelled a host of changes in his business. “Just after COVID-19, we took the first four weeks off in that first month when we were in a lockdown. And then we went back into our University St. location and tried to strategize, work on a game plan and see what we needed to do. From there, we had a few different ideas. And we figured this is probably a good opportunity to take advantage of [opening] a commissary location. It was always something that we discussed, but never something that we followed through on.”

In addition to opening the commissary, Libretto continued to sell its popular Neapolitan pizza through delivery channels. “It was difficult — the uncertainty of it. You didn’t know what was happening in that sense, right? We went from serving guests and their families to laying off almost 200 people.” Thankfully, as Agostino says, “pizza is one of those comfort foods that people gravitate to. Especially during these times.”

Agostino and his partner Max Rimaldi realized that limitations also existed. “For what we were serving, I mean, Neapolitan pizza, does it travel well? It travels, okay. It’s not the greatest because it’s one of those products that’s optimal the moment it comes out of the oven.”

But with a little ingenuity — such as adding a corrugated liner in the box to help the pizza to travel better — the duo also had to “think outside the box. Because it was takeout and delivery, we said, okay, well, what else can we do? So, we developed a New-York style 16-inch pizza to go. We also put a Sicilian-style pizza [on the menu] which is a bit more of a foccacia variation of a pizza — a little thicker. Both these styles of pizzas are cooked a little longer and they travel a little better when it comes to takeout and delivery.” While sales have been brisk, he says, the popular Neapolitan pizza still remains the restaurant’s best seller.

Additionally, at the company’s Enoteca Sociale restaurant, the culinary team has been producing pasta and meal kits for guests as well as selling sauces and other products in a pantry at the front of the restaurant, so that customers can buy wine and cocktails, including the restaurant’s signature Negroni. “These are all ideas that, during this time, are different. It’s great and innovative and it’s something that will evolve. It’s a little different when we get back to a normal situation. I’m excited for it because change is good and sometimes needs to happen.”

Additionally, the two partners also decided to launch frozen pizza for retail shops. “It was a discussion that we were having about six years ago. But the pandemic has allowed us to move forward with the frozen pizza. We were busy with the restaurants and serving guests, but the pandemic allowed us to create something unique and different in the market. And we’ve gotten some great reviews. We’re in 27 grocery stores right now.”

As for long-lasting lessons, Agostino stresses it’s important to be “open to change and to innovation. You need to think outside the box, you need to re-think what you’re doing on a regular basis and adjust as needed.”

To listen to the entire Table Talk podcast featuring Rocco Agostino click here.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.