In our new series, The F&B Files, we hear from industry players; chefs, owners, pizzaiolos, bartenders and bakers, in their own words. We take a look at the business from an insider’s perspective to showcase the many ways in which restaurants and bars shape our world.
First up we have Max and Rocco, the duo behind a groundbreaking restaurant. In August of 2008 they transformed an old pool hall into this city’s first Neapolitan pizzeria. They didn’t know it then, but they effectively changed this city’s pizza scene forever. They paved the way for places like Maker, Blondies, Descendant, General Assembly, Saints Island, Badiali and so many others. As Max and Rocco celebrate fifteen years in business we asked them to take a look back at those early days.
all interviews have been condensed and edited
Founder and Co-Owner, Pizzeria Libretto
I grew up in restaurants, starting at fifteen in a dishpit in a restaurant in Vaughn. I worked all over. I had an apartment on College and Ossington, so Ossington was part of my neighborhood. At the time I wished I had more options for restaurants. There were some cool bars on Ossington, but it was still up and coming. It’s a different story now of course.
I found a tiny, decrepit pool hall. I put together my life savings, which wasn’t much. I got a loan from my mom and my girlfriend put in a bunch of her money. I asked Rocco if he’d consider being the chef. He was like, “What? A pizzeria with a chef?”
Back then a chef being part of anything other than a fine dining restaurant wasn’t really a thing. But I wanted a chef, and I wanted a different kind of chef. I was used to working with guys who were always angry and aggressive. I was even becoming like that myself, as a manager. And when I started planning my own place I decided, I’m not going to be like that anymore, and I don’t want to work with anyone who is. That’s why Rocco needed to be the chef, because he’s not like that at all.
My family is from a small town right in between Rome and Napoli. In the town there is a little facility where they make pizza ovens. Stefano Ferrara is the guy who makes the ovens. He’s a rock star now, everyone wants his ovens, but back then he was unknown and this oven was pricey. I mean it was going to cost a lot of money and I really didn’t have very much to start with. But I wanted to do Neapolitan-style pizza, because it is the root of all pizza, but it’s also close to my home and my heart.
So, everybody said don’t order the oven. What was I gonna do?
I ordered the oven.
When we opened it was a case of, we better open the doors because I’ve got no money left. I went from a good paying job to living off a couple hundred bucks a week. But then we opened the doors and there were lineups. There was a lot of hype about us, but also a lot of people complaining online – what is this pizza? It’s soft in the middle, it’s soggy!
This was August of 2008. We were the first restaurant to serve VPN certified pizza, made within Napoli government guidelines. It was the start of showing that there’s something else out there when it comes to pizza, and Toronto realizing that collectively for the first time.
For me, great pizza is all about love. And all pizza can be great pizza. Even frozen pizza at 4am is great pizza.
Chef and Co-Owner, Pizzeria Libretto
Max and I go back to when we first started cooking, at a place in Woodbridge called Ciao Bella, that was his first serving job and my first cooking job. We kept meeting up at different restaurants over the years. He helped me out with front of house when I opened my own place, The Silver Spoon, on Roncesvalles. My restaurant was never profitable, I wasn’t paying myself for the longest time. This industry, I love it and I can’t see myself doing anything else, but it is tough.
In spring of 2008 Max said he wanted to open a pizzeria, on Ossington. He wanted to do Neapolitan pizza. I was keen to work with that style because it was new and different and Toronto wasn’t familiar with it at all.
Right from the get go we were quite surprised, we did not expect lineups. People wanted our pizza from day one. I remember one night Susur Lee walked in at 10pm and we had run out of dough. Brutal.
The way it exploded right out of the gate was really unexpected. Not only was this a different style of pizza, it was a different way of doing things. We were obsessed with service. For us, value was paramount, along with the dining experience. We wanted customers to experience incredible service without getting gouged.
Fifteen years in and we have five locations; Ossington, the Junction, University, the Danforth and Yonge & Sheppard. Plus we have a line of frozen pizzas. I really enjoy the Diavola, because I enjoy spice. It’s got beef salami, hot peppers, olives and pepperoncini crema; our version of a hot sauce. I love our house-made sausage. We even make our own plant-based cheese for the vegan pizza.
To this day the Margherita pizza is the most popular pizza on the menu. If you’ve never had Neapolitan pizza before, that’s the one to try. You have to get it right out of the oven, it’s not the same if it’s put in a box.
The recipe is still the same since we opened our doors fifteen years ago. We tried a few different things but we realized early on, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. That’s served us well so far.
CHI Real Estate is a commercial brokerage focused on F&B. Everyone who works here comes from the industry. We’re former chefs, owners, pizzaiolos, baristas and bartenders, and we know restaurants from the inside out.
If you are interested in opening a restaurant, or selling one, CHI Real Estate can help. Get in touch with our team today.