Frozen grocery store pizza has historically been a competitor of fresh pizza.
Frozen grocery store pizza has historically been a competitor of fresh pizza. You may be surprised to learn that some of the biggest frozen lines in Canada are in fact the culmination of an entrepreneurial pizzeria that has been serving up fresh pizza for over 26 years. Ricci’s Pizzeria & Sandwich Shoppe, located in Woodbridge, Ont., is the inspiration for frozen pizza lines found in M&M Meat Shops and Metro grocery chains, as well as Walmart’s Great Value and Donatello’s pizza. These frozen pies are made by the Ricci family in a plant situated just a short drive from their popular pizzeria. The scope of their business is a testament to the hard work and sacrifice that Michele and Maria Domenica Ricci, along with their four children, Joe, Bruno, Mike and Laura, have dedicated to the business since opening their doors on Dec. 21, 1985.
|Michele and Maria Domenica Ricci, founders of Ricci’s Pizzeria & Sandwich Shoppe.
It was during the 1980s that this Italian-Canadian family had to make a major decision. Michele fell ill while working his job in construction and the family felt they needed to take a new direction. They sat down together to discuss their options and Ricci’s Pizzeria & Sandwich Shoppe was born.
The two youngest Ricci children, Mike and Laura, were barely teenagers at the time, but they were hard workers and eager to learn from their mother and eldest brother Joe. Maria and Joe had previous experience in the restaurant industry and they shared this knowledge with the other family members, teaching them how to make the mouthwatering pizzas that they have since built their name on.
Ricci’s first location opened in Malton, Ont., just around the corner from where the family lived. It was a take-out and restaurant combination that served long lines of students from the nearby grade school every lunch hour, and loyal regulars during afternoons and evenings. The pizzeria became known for their famous panzerottis, fried to a golden brown and bursting with gooey cheese and tantalizing tomato sauce.
“Where we grew up everybody had three to four kids. My best friend’s brother was best friends with my brother and so on. It was an immense group of people and they knew an even larger group of people, so it just grew by word of mouth rather than advertising.
Whatever we could get involved with, whether it was local charities or schools, we got in the community and that was the strongest thing for us,” Mike says.
In November of 1992, middle brothers Bruno and Mike spearheaded an expansion that opened a second location on Weston Rd., in Woodbridge, Ont. During this time, Joe and Bruno began developing an idea for a frozen line of pizzas. Instead of franchising their popular pies, they envisioned going national so that no matter where you lived in Canada, you could have a Ricci’s pizza. During the mid-1990s this pilot project became a reality and Ricci Food Group Canada was created.
The hours were intense and every member of the family put their all into making the new Ricci enterprise succeed, while also maintaining the operations of the two pizzeria locations. Mike likens the undertaking to digging a giant hole with a backhoe, jumping in and trying to climb out of it.
“The first 10 years were very difficult. The last five years have been successful, but we’re still moving towards getting better at what we do. There was no blueprint for this. It was part creativity in terms of what you’re producing and part engineering to be able to do it,” Mike explains.
Laura is quick to agree. “Anything new is difficult. You need to know what to do to move forward, because every business needs to progress and change and develop. There’s no guarantee to succeed…we had all three businesses simultaneously so it was difficult for Mike when Bruno had to go work with Joe at the plant, just as it was difficult for me to not have Joe there at the Malton store. It was difficult in that we had to divide; the workload and hours put a lot of strain on the business,” she says.
|The four siblings: Joe Ricci, Bruno Ricci, Laura Ricci-Lomanno and Mike Ricci.
Fifteen years later, the immense undertaking of Ricci Food Group Canada can be hailed a success thanks to the support of each member in the Ricci family. The success, however, should also be attributed to the quality of their products. Ricci’s frozen pizzas are modeled on those that they serve in their pizzeria, using the same dough recipe that was developed and fine-tuned back when their first location opened its doors. The cheese is also the same, while the sauce is slightly altered to better lend itself to freezing.
Judging by the long line of customers curling towards the door of their pizzeria on a Thursday afternoon, Ricci’s pizzas, panzos and veal sandwiches are a definite hit in the community. “Our dough is our gift to everyone. When you take a bite of our pizza, it’s all in the dough. Changing the recipe for our dough is never up for discussion…it’s crunchy and it’s fluffy inside,” Laura says, trying to find the words to describe the perfection that she feels their dough has achieved.
Mike emphasizes that when they find an ingredient they like, they commit to that company. For example, they’ve been using the same premium California tomatoes for 27 years.
“We try to pick partners and stay with them. I don’t like change and so a lot of the suppliers that we do have, they’ve been with us for a long time and they’re the best. You surround yourself with the best and in the end it will come out in the quality of your food,” Mike says.
In 2000, the Ricci family decided to close their Malton location so that Maria and Michele could take a well-deserved step back and Laura could concentrate her efforts on the Woodbridge location. Between the pizzeria and the plant, Ricci’s employs approximately 60 people, some that have been with them for close to two decades. Their employee loyalty is trumped only by customer loyalty, with regulars making up a large share of their business. One gentleman in particular, along with his family, has eaten at the establishment every Friday or Saturday evening since their opening day in 1985.
Now in their 27th year of operation, Ricci’s commitment to its original purpose and principles still remain deeply entrenched in the business. “We are value driven. Not everybody can afford a plate of $18 dollar pasta, so we want to present our customers with value; not only in the products that we’re serving them, but in the service that we offer…Our restaurant is an extension of our mom’s kitchen. I’m going to make your food the way I would make it for myself and we instilled this line of thinking and attitude in our employees. This form of casual dining is the key to longevity,” Mike explains.
By maintaining this vision, it’s easy to see why Ricci’s Pizzeria & Sandwich Shoppe is a home away from home to its loyal customers, with arms that extend into grocery chains from one end of Canada to the other.
Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance writer based in Uxbridge, Ont. She is a regular contributor to Canadian Pizza magazine and Bakers Journal.
Print this page