Toronto's gourmet pizza

In a city like Toronto, where the marketplace is saturated with restaurants, diners and bistros, it can be difficult to sustain a successful eatery, especially if it’s independently owned. Pizzerias, in particular, have a hard time holding their own against the well-established, national pizza franchises. It is a pleasant surprise, then, when a small pizzeria not only succeeds in one location, but has the opportunity to spread itself throughout the city. Such is the story of Pizzaiolo. After only ten years, this Italian-Canadian pizza place has 18 locations all over Toronto.

To be clear, Pizzaiolo founder Luigi Petrella has had more than 10 years of experience in the industry. In fact, as a third-generation pizza maker, he was born into it. In the 1940s, Petrella’s grandparents, Giuseppe and Ida, had a pizza place in little town of Montorio, Italy. When the 1960s brought an immigration wave of Italians to Canada, Petrella’s parents, Antonio and Anna, brought their old-world pizza making traditions with them and opened a pizzeria called La Gondola. Soon after, they opened Pizza Gigi in 1970, to celebrate the birth of baby Luigi.

As Luigi Petrella got older, he decided to carry on the legacy. Even though his mother told him the workload was too heavy, Petrella was determined. After operating a few restaurants with a partner, Petrella opened his own authentic pizzeria in 2000, called Pizzaiolo—a name that, in Italian, means “pizza maker.” Today, the company continues to bring a taste of history to Torontonians.

Starting up

Despite several warnings about the location, Pizzaiolo’s first store was nestled at Keele Street and Steeles Avenue. (For those unfamiliar with Toronto, the intersection is right next to York University, and fairly north of the downtown core). “People told me no one could make a go of this spot,” recalls Petrella. “Everyone that had moved in prior had failed. But we were busy every day. A year after we opened, someone asked to buy the business.

Interestingly, Petrella was already in the process of buying another location further down the street, so he sold it and moved the Keele Street and Finch Avenue intersection. “When I was established there, someone else approached me to buy that location,” Petrella laughs. “Then I moved downtown Toronto to Queen Street. In the spring of 2003, the SARS epidemic spread and business went south. Although one of my partners wanted out, I believed in the product and stayed with it. The business came back and we were able to open more locations, and people kept wanting to buy them. Now, we have 18 stores.”

Set apart

As aforementioned, Toronto has plenty of pizzerias and the competition is fierce. So what is it about Pizzaiolo that stands out? Besides speedy service and a great price point (under $6 for a slice and a drink), Petrella dwells on the product quality. “Our pizzas are delicious,” he boasts. “That is what has made us so successful.”

Delicious is an understatement. Pizzaiolo offers a host of gourmet pies that will satisfy any pizza lover’s taste buds. For example, the Spinotta is the best seller, featuring fresh spinach, herbed tomatoes, ricotta cheese, mozzarella, Parmigiano, oregano and extra virgin olive oil. The Bianca is also a big hit, with artichoke hearts, zucchini, garlic, feta, oregano, mozzarella and Parmigiano. And then there’s the Thai Pie with peanut satay, mozzarella, red onions, BBQ chicken and mushrooms, spicy BBQ sauce. The list goes on, but you get the idea. For those that have special dietary needs, gluten-free and lactose-free pizzas are coming soon.

Along with gourmet flavours, Pizzaiolo has added gourmet touches to their interior design. “We have glass displays, chandeliers and granite countertops,” says Petrella. “The feel of our stores is inviting for someone who has $5 in their pocket or $5000 in their pocket. The decor is reminiscent of Italian homes, which I wanted to bring into our stores. We also have real family pictures in each location, which adds to the multigenerational aspect. They are photos of my parents and grandparents making pizza and eating around the table.”  

New priorities

As the business grows from year to year, Pizzaiolo is learning to adapt with changes. “With so many stores, my priority right now is consistency,” says Petrella. “Everything is done by hand from start to finish, so there is room for variation—it’s not like they are mass produced and flash frozen. Our new focus is ensuring our pizzas taste the same from store to store. In the future, we’re looking into a training facility and quality control staff.”

As for new stores, Petrella would like to see a Pizzaiolo in more Toronto neighbourhoods. “In the next couple of years, we want to be everywhere in Toronto,” he says. “We want to fill up the Toronto area, which could mean adding another seven stores in the next few years. As of now, there are places we can’t deliver to because it’s too far from the closest location. Our goal is to have enough pizzerias to close those gaps and deliver anywhere in the city.”
Torontonians have a lot to look forward to from Pizzaiolo, and in five years when the city hosts the Pan Am Games, so will hungry tourists.