Meet the 2013 Canadian Pizza magazine Chef of the Year
By Laura Aiken
Rocco Agostino may be the shareholder who’s “all about the food” in the Libretto Restaurant Group
Rocco Agostino may be the shareholder who’s “all about the food” in the Libretto Restaurant Group, but he’s earned his business stripes and then some as the executive chef of one of Toronto’s busiest pizzerias.
|The crew: Nick auf der Mauer of Porchetta and Co., Pizzeria Libretto business partners Jamie Cook, Gary Quinto, Max Rimaldi and Rocco Agostino, and Libretto staffer Mathan Rajarantnam.|
Pizzeria Libretto brought VPN certified pizza to Toronto, sparking the oft media quoted “pizza wars” as more shops opened up featuring the Neapolitan style. Pizzeria Libretto was unveiled on the trendy Ossington strip in August 2008. The first week was a “little crazy,” says Agostino.
“There were dramatic jumps in service from the first night to the second night. We ran out of dough a couple times. It was something I think the city wanted and was excited about.”
Torontonians got excited and stayed excited. Libretto is still a busy place, and Neapolitan pizza is still on fire five years later. What began as one restaurant, grew to a second location on Danforth, and a sister restaurant, Enoteca Sociale. Agostino, one of four partners in the restaurant group, splits his time between the pizzerias.
Agostino has become a celebrity chef of sorts. While he isn’t hosting his own show (yet), his name fronts one of the upcoming and upscale new eateries at Pearson Airport alongside the likes of Mark McEwan. But, before he was known as pizza maker extraordinaire, serving up duck confit pies in the tradition of his French culinary training, he was a young buck, born in 1970 and raised in downtown Toronto, who didn’t take much interest in food until his later teen years.
“I drove my parents crazy as a kid, played hockey with my friends. I don’t think it was until I was a teenager, about 16 or so, that I started taking notice of food. Like every kid, I would watch my mum cooking in the kitchen.”
To this day, he says his favourite meal of Mom’s is her lasagna, and that it would “probably be my last supper.”
He got his first restaurant job at 19, working his way through a few different places. He wanted to work for Raffaello Ferrari, an executive chef and co-owner of Centro in the 1980s. Agostino saw him as a top Italian chef and he wanted to learn from the best. He didn’t land a job with him, but did get to meet him and was advised to work in a couple of other kitchens and then come back. He met his future business partner and the majority owner of Libretto, Max Rimaldi, at one of his first posts (perhaps the unattained position became a twist of fate). And, as all who’ve had their first posts know, mistakes are some of life’s most memorable learning opportunities.
“It was at my first job. Chef had stock on the stove and asked me to strain it, so I said OK. So I strained it – the liquid is all gone – and saved whatever else was left. He’s like, ‘what did you do?’ I was like, ‘I strained it.’ So I saved the fish bones. Needless to say I never did that again.”
He eventually attended Stratford Chef School, and furthered his culinary training in Italy. He then opened up the Silver Spoon in Toronto, operating it for 10 years before Rimaldi turned up with an idea for a pizzeria. Agostino sold Silver Spoon and opened Libretto a year and a half later. Rimaldi started the concept at home, working the dough, which is aged for three days. At Libretto, it’s all about flavour. The restaurant abides by an Italian philosophy of following seasons and preparing simple yet bold-flavoured dishes, says Agostino.
“There’s something to be said for having a tomato in August when it’s at its peak. That’s why you won’t find tomatoes on our menu at this time of year [February]. It’s about flavor . . . wild leeks are about a month away and it gets your mind turning and thinking of specials.”
Local and organic are two food buying decisions wrapped tightly in the fold of Agostino’s philosophy, but if he had to choose one or the other, he says he would pick local because he knows where the food is coming from. Using companies that bridge the gap between farmers and restaurant helps Agostino keep a steady supply. He lives his beliefs at home, visiting the farmer’s markets with his wife and young son and daughter. When he’s not playing with his kids, flipping through food magazines, or taking his family for wings, he’s got his ambition for perfection keeping him on his chef-shoed toes. He credits having passion, and the desire to learn something new every day as way to keep thinking researching.
Agostino was recently in California attaining his own VPN certification, where he discovered something he didn’t know about the origin of the Margherita pizza (which is and always has been the pizzeria’s top seller). Legend has it that Raffaele Esposito made the pizza for Queen Margherita for which it was named, but through Agostino’s certification he was taught that it was Esposito’s wife who gave him the idea for the ingredients.
Ideas are one thing, consistency another. If Esposito made that pizza the same way, day in and day out, for years, then he would have had the elusive consistency factor nailed. Consistency, says Agostino, is the hardest thing about being a chef, and pizza is tough to make the same day in and day out. The weather, wood, oven . . . it all plays a card in the hand that makes up a full house.
For young chefs in Toronto, working for Agostino would be a coveted spot and he seems to take to his mentoring role like a good parent. Although the media sometimes portray chefs as temperamental, he says, yelling accomplishes nothing when it comes to teaching students how to handle themselves under pressure. Teach them to be cool, and be cool by leading, he says. After a year or two with you, they deserve to move on and learn more elsewhere.
“Of course, sometimes you have to raise your voice but I don’t think you have to be an asshole,” he says, and then apologizes for swearing in the adult yet soft-spoken and youthful way he relates, rolling his thumbs and sticking his hands in the side of his apron as he talks. All the recognition doesn’t seem to have gone to his head, and while he’s often been described in the press as a humble guy (which is true), it fits the bill best to say he is one who genuinely enjoys making others happy. He is most gratified when he can see people in the dining room smiling, or when guests say his pizza is just as good or better than what they’ve had in Italy. If his son says it’s good, “that’s huge.”
It’s not caviar he’d choose if left stranded on a desert island, but good old olive oil, and that fact is reflected in the simple sophistication, and the elegant yet unpretentious nature, of his dishes.
“Pizza is one of those things that evokes really good memories, no matter how old you are, or what background you’re from, it just seems that at some point someone had a pizza that’s that comforting memory that really hits home.”
The winning combination