Pizza may be one of the world’s simplest foods — a slather of sauce on flattened bread dough, a scattering of herbs and cheese, minutes in a hot oven, and lunch (or dinner) is served. According to folklore, the dish was created to keep Italian kids fed while their mothers baked the family’s daily bread at the communal village oven. When curious Queen Margherita visited Naples, sometime in the late 1800s, and saw peasants enjoying “pizza breads” on the street, she ordered a taste and the rest, as they say, is history. Neapolitan pizza has long been recognized in Italy as a unique product and, in 2009, the European Union declared it protected as a Traditional Specialty Guaranteed dish.
Today, the classic tomato, mozzarella and basil pizza (representing the colours of the Italian flag) is still known as the Margherita, and it’s a standard menu item for the new wave of authentic Neapolitan pizza parlours springing up across Canada.
Dominic Tudda grew up making pizza at his family’s popular Stromboli’s Pizza in Calgary, but he took everything up a notch in 2006 when he went to Italy to become certified as a pizzaiolo by the Associazione Pizzaioli Napolitani (APN), the first to achieve the designation in Canada. The wood oven the longtime pizza-making family built at the centre of their stylish new pizza parlour was created with actual lava rock from Mount Vesuvius, then a requirement for APN status. And, while it wasn’t always an easy sell — many diners, familiar with crispy, thin-crust California pizza initially questioned the unsliced, “floppy” Neapolitan style — since then, authentic Neapolitan pizza has grown in popularity across the country.
While some have called Toronto’s Queen Margherita Pizza “the ambitious underdog” to other upscale pizzerias in the city (think Pizzeria Libretto or Terroni), co-owner John Chetti says it’s all about being the best you can be. “We serve Neapolitan pizza, but we’re also very focused on delivering the best product we possibly can,” he says.
To that end, the company that has three Toronto locations will soon open a downtown flagship with its latest acquisition, top Canadian chef Jonathan Gushue. “We’ve changed from where we started — we’re taking our execution to another level to create a unique dining experience,” Chetti explains. House-made sausages and prosciutto, even butter, are part of the plan, while keeping pizza prices between $14 and $19. Chetti learned to make authentic Neapolitan pizza from experts, but, like many of his peers (including Calgary’s W.O.P – Without Papers), he says requiring certification from the APN or the similar Association Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN) is “hogwash.”
“We hired people from Naples to come and teach us, but we decided not to participate in [the certification] foolishness,” he says, adding that his team follows the official protocols of baking with Caputo “00” flour and imported San Marzano tomatoes in a special wood-fired pizza oven. They’re experimenting with growing Italian varieties of tomatoes in Ontario and creating a homegrown flour blend. “What Neapolitan pizza is truly dedicated to is fresh, local products, ingredients that are sensible,” Chetti says, adding his pizzas may include traditional or creative toppings. “If it’s in season, why not? Italian cuisine is based on this model.”
According to the NPD Group there are 7,500 pizza restaurants in Canada, and pizza remains one of the top 15 menu items consumed in Canada. Overall, pizza servings declined in recent years — down two per cent in November 2012 over November 2013 — but innovations, from wood-fired pizza ovens to multi-grain and gluten-free crusts, are creating new possibilities.
Canadian Pizza magazine notes 2014 trends include “smaller gourmet portions,” artisanal pizzas and “ancient grain crusts” made from spelt, cornmeal, quinoa and buckwheat. In the U.S., the leading sauces found on pizza are tomato and barbecue, according to the Chicago-based Food Genius, which delivers “big data and insight solutions” to the food industry.
Tomatoes didn’t appear in Europe until the 16th century, but today the pomodoro used in sauce is critical — authentic Neapolitan pizza is topped with Italian-grown San Marzano tomatoes (see Ingredient of the Month, above).
Other ingredients are key to a true Marinara or Margherita pizza, too. The dough should be made with a finely ground Italian white flour blend (usually labelled “00” — double zero or doppio zero), hand-formed into discs by stretching (not rolling) and should be pliable enough to fold over when baked. That baking should take no more than 90 seconds in a domed, wood-fired pizza oven (at 900°F/482°C), and all toppings should be top quality, from the mozzarella (only D.O.P. Italian mozzarella di bufala or fior di latte), to the extra virgin olive oil, fresh herbs and permitted hard cheeses.
It’s the type of pizza Cristen DeCarolis Dallas and her husband, Geoffrey Dallas, were looking for when they moved their family to Victoria from San Francisco after working at a software company. “We just wanted to have a good thin-crust pizza, based on the experience we had in the Bay area,” says DeCarolis Dallas.
With two young children, the couple set their sights on a restaurant where families and people of all ages would feel comfortable. And, five years ago, the first Pizzeria Prima Strada was born on Victoria’s trendy Cook Street. “We set out to be a traditional Neapolitan pizzeria, following the guidelines, though we didn’t get the certification until later in 2010,” says DeCarolis Dallas, noting their original training was in California. “Now we can really talk about authenticity.”
Sitting in the restaurant’s second location in an industrial space near the city’s downtown core, where wood for their ovens is stacked against the back wall, she says pizza is elevated by paying close attention to details, from the biga (starter) acquired in Naples to the finest Italian tomatoes. All of the dough is made for both locations in one kitchen for consistency and undergoes a slow fermentation process to add flavour. Skill is the other vital ingredient, learning to properly stretch the dough and regulate the heat in the imported Valoriani pizza ovens. “It takes 200 pies for people to really get the hang of what they’re doing,” says DeCarolis Dallas. At Pizzeria Prima Strada, the team conducts regular blind tastings of tomato and flour products to ensure the best-tasting ingredients are used to make quality, affordable pizza. The basic Marinara pizza is $11.50, while the Margherita, made with authentic buffalo mozzarella from Vancouver Island’s Fairburn Farm, is $15; and the most expensive pie, the Rucola e Crudo, topped with fresh mozzarella, Prosciutto di Parma and arugula, is $16.50. “We want our pizza to be accessible to everybody,” says DeCarolis Dallas.
The three friends behind Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria have taken that accessibility to another level — franchising their popular concept with 22 fast-casual restaurants, from Victoria to Toronto. “When I travelled to Naples, I fell in love with Neapolitan pizza,” says Justin Lussier, partner and CEO, who immediately called buddies Jason Allard and Christian Bullock and convinced them to join him in opening an authentic pizzeria in Edmonton.
That was 2007, and last year Famoso was ranked as one of Canada’s fastest-growing companies by Toronto’s Profit magazine. “We always liked the idea of building a brand and successfully bringing the concept to different cities,” says Lussier.
While Lussier trained in Naples to perfect the product, the company is not VPN-certified. The team uses imported “00” flour and stretches the pizza dough by hand, but their Italian bell ovens are fuelled by gas, not wood. “I’ve seen the best guys in Naples cook with gas, and this allows me to achieve the same product, with more consistency,” says Lussier, noting that the team returns to Naples each year.
Famoso pizzas range from $9 for basic Marinara to $15.25 for prosciutto and arugula, and $15.75 for a creative Moo Shu BBQ Duck pie with house-made hoisin sauce. This price is achieved by choosing imported Italian tomatoes from Campania (not expensive San Marzanos) and offering limited-service (customers order and pay at the counter, while pizzas are delivered to the table).
“We’re passionate about authenticity and making everything in-house,” says Lussier. “We are trying to make it a social gathering place where all kinds of people can rub shoulders, enjoy a glass of wine or a beer, and a great pizza.”