Pioneering Canadian pizzerias
By Colleen Cross
It’s a rare pizzeria that has weathered the storms of the Canadian economy for more than half a century. Here we check in with three pizzerias that have celebrated 50 years in business by providing quality pizza, building their brand and changing with the times. The common threads in their success: community and family values.
Gerrard Pizza is a hidden gem. But don’t take our word for it.
This was the consensus of a poll by the Danforth East Community Association that awarded that title to the restaurant, which is a little off the beaten path on the Danforth in Toronto’s east end.
This is a little ironic, considering its roots reach back to – you guessed it – Gerrard Street at a more central city location where it first opened in 1966 as Gerrard Spaghetti & Pizza House. Since then, the pizzeria has remained in the Greco family.
During my visit, I was shown around the pizzeria by brother-
and-sister team Vito Greco and Elenor Imbrogno. The restaurant, which comfortably seats 40, was redecorated last year with the help of DECA volunteers as part of the “Hidden Gem” neighbourhood honour. The interior is a pleasing combination of industrial chic and family atmosphere. The warm, grey walls display family photos lit by glass-jar chandelier fixtures. We look at a picture of his father, Giuseppe, who after coming to Canada from the Calabria region of Italy in 1966, worked with his brother then took over the business in 1972. We reflect on a black and white photo of their mother, Nancy, wielding a pizza peel in the early days. Our eyes rest on a 1972 menu with prices that bring a chuckle.
During their 50th birthday party in April 2016, they treated longtime customers to several items at their original 1960s prices: 12-inch cheese pizzas went for $1 and spaghetti with tomato sauce went for $1.25.
During their first decade, they served mostly pizza but also a few non-Italian food items such as burgers, omelettes and steak dinners. Over the years they have streamlined the menu to focus on pizza. A wall-engulfing menu board they put up a year and a half ago lists 64 gourmet pizzas; since then sales of pizza have “skyrocketed,” Vito says. All of these pizzas, he assures me, can be tweaked to order depending on what the customer requests. “Ninety-five per cent of our customers are regulars,” he says, adding that some don’t need a menu but take their usual, which the family and staff know by heart.
It’s all hands on deck at this bustling business, which is run by Vito and Elenor with lots of help from their parents on weekends, Vito’s children – Giuseppe, 14, and Massimo, 12 – and Elenor’s children – Gianluca, 22 and Matteo, 18. “Whatever needs to be done, we just do,” Vito says.
They make everything from scratch and the slate of house-made products for sale to prove it: pasta sauces, flavoured extra virgin olive oils and “Giuseppe’s Perfect Red Wine Vinegar.” When asked to describe their crust, Elenor says it is “thinnish, golden and darker.”
They have always had dine-in and take-out options, but a couple of years ago they started doing delivery through services like Just Eat and UberEATS. It’s going well, Elenor says.
The family are big supporters of Rev It Up for SickKids, which organizes sponsored group motorcycle rides and other activities to raise funds for infant warmer beds at the city’s Hospital for Sick Children. With every sale of one of three selected signature pizzas, $1 will go to the cause, which they are excited about. “We’re really enjoying working with them,” Elenor says. “I donated to them in the past, personally, and when they asked us to participate, we didn’t even have to think about it.”
I raise the topic of online reviews. Vito takes these in stride, choosing to focus on what he can do for the in-store customer. “I don’t put much stock in online reviews. I review our business by how many people come in the door.”
It’s clear that lots of people are coming in to this neighbourhood joint, including, on this afternoon, an eager young man who says he lives around the corner and is eager to try the family’s pizza.
With an enormous wall of gourmet pizzas to choose from and customer-focused service, it’s a good bet there will be many more through the door.
Domino Pizza House
The Domino Pizza House is often the first stop for pizza lovers just off the ferry in Stephenville, N.L., a paper-mill town of nearly 7,000 people.
“People know we are open until 4 a.m. on Friday nights,” co-owner Noel Estoppey says. “When they get off the boat, they call us – because there’s always somebody in the building – and they say, ‘What time do you close? Because I’m not going home until I go to the pizzeria,’ So there’s a feeling of pride.”
That pride is well founded. Noel’s father, Claude Estoppey started the business in 1964 after he learned his work in the officer’s mess hall at the Harmon Air Force Base was coming to an end. The entrepreneur named his new business the Domino Pizza House in honour of the Domino Tearoom in Bern, Switzerland, where he worked as a young man before coming to Canada.
The shop is not to be confused with the Domino’s Pizza chain that began in 1960 near Ann Arbor, Mich., and became officially trademarked as Domino’s Pizza, Inc. in 1965.
The family was unaware of the U.S. chain until many years later when Claude travelled to Florida. The two quietly co-existed until a misunderstanding by the Yellow Pages led to the large chain suing for trademark infringement then backing down once the Estoppeys proved their restaurant’s incorporation predated the chain’s.
Already involved in the business, Noel and his sister Lorraine took over the shop from Claude in 2000, and the two, along with Noel’s wife, Tracey, have run it since then.
Noel Estoppey’s earliest memory is of playing in the flour as his dad worked. Noel has worked in the business since early childhood, and as a young man at university, introduced some new ideas to his father – ideas that weren’t always immediately well received.
Back in the 1990s, he approached his father with the idea of selling by the slice, something he had come across often as a university student living away from home. “My father said people will never buy it because they want a full pizza.” A couple of years later, he says, his father relented. “He said it was a good idea – and it wasn’t very often he said that.” It became their main business.
They have two crusts: a baking powder-raised crust Noel describes as French style and a yeast-raised crust he says is more of an Italian style. Part of the business is given over to submarine sandwiches on their homemade buns. Spaghetti, donairs, soups, salads and baked treats round out the menu.
For an independent pizzeria, they sell at an unusually high volume and are an important customer to suppliers,” Noel says. “It’s not like an ordinary pizza place. They ask, “Do you really need all those pizza boxes,” and we say, “Yes, we do.”
With 30 employees ¬– several of them longtime staff – they are one of the biggest employers in town. Still, they share with many other pizzerias the challenge of finding the right people. “Not all young people are up for it,” he says. “After the first paycheque they lose courage.”
Two of their staff call out how long they’ve been employed at Domino Pizza House – “28 years and counting; 36 years and counting.” “The team like it,” he says. “They say it with a smile on their face.”
They also have many longtime customers. “I’m looking at one of them right now,” he says with I imagine is a wink. “The locals keep us going.”
Tom’s house of pizza
You might be surprised to learn that Tom’s House of Pizza, a 54-year-old, five-location chain in Calgary is not run by Tom but by a man named John.
The Tom is Tom Fowler, who opened the first location in 1963. The John is John Windle, who worked for Fowler as a young man for three-and-a-half years in the late 1960s.
“I enjoyed working there as a kid,” Windle says. When looking for a change of careers after a decade in medical supply sales for a large company in his home province of Ontario, he decided to move back to Calgary and buy into the franchise. Fowler ran the business until the early 1980s expanding it across Canada. In 1994 Windle bought out the shares of then-owner Bob Collins. Windle now owns all four Calgary locations – one location in nearby Okotoks is run by a franchisee – including the 1,000-square-foot main office and 2,000-square-foot central commissary on Macleod Trail where all dough and most toppings are prepared.
The pizzeria’s distinctively thin-crust pies are baked directly on a brick hearth without the use of a pan. He estimates they put out 200 pizzas every day.
As in many pizzerias, pepperoni is by far the most popular topping at Tom’s, but over the years he noticed a taste for chicken developing among customers. He added it to the menu 15 years ago after a long search to find a chicken product he was happy with. Today a variation on Hawaiian pizza featuring chicken, banana pepper, pineapple and feta cheese – inspired by his wife’s tastes and named Suzanne’s Special – is one of their best-selling pizzas.
The entrepreneur was quick to see the potential of the neighbourhood pub and in 1988 started adding pub locations adjacent to the pizzerias. At the time, pubs could represent no more than half of your business, he says, and sales had to be less than 40 per cent of your overall sales. Now the pub and restaurant share the space equally and the full menu is available on both sides. Although the laws now allow them to tear down the dividing walls, he prefers to keep the walls in place as a buffer. “You get sports teams in the lounge and sometimes the language gets colourful,” he says. “We like to keep things separate because there may be families with children in the pizzeria.”
Windle says over the years he has thought about expanding beyond Calgary but decided it wasn’t for him. “You’re either in the restaurant business or you’re in the franchise business. I spend a lot of hours in the restaurant.”
He is a hands-on owner, in the sense that he puts in many hours working out of the main office and occasionally checking in on the other locations. But he also believes in empowering his employees, which number between 42 and 50, to manage themselves. “They’re going to make mistakes, but that’s how they learn. I find that when I am away they tend to be at their best. I am able to get away and to turn it off,” he says.
Windle’s three children – Melanie, Sebastien and Emily – all worked in the pizzeria while as teenagers. Sebastien, 38, has stayed with the business and is now operations manager. “They started when they were 14, bagging green peppers at the commissary for the other locations. They worked their way up through all the jobs just like everyone else.”
He has noticed changes in the way suppliers do business over the years. “In the old days, we often did business on a handshake. We used to take half a truck of pineapple, and we got a good price.” Many suppliers now sell to retail stores as well as wholesale “to restaurants, he adds. “As a restaurant owner, you really have to shop around.”
He attributes the pizzeria’s success and longevity to two things. The first is an unwillingness to carry debt. “We are averse to debt. When we need a new piece of equipment, we are patient. We save up to buy; we don’t lease.
The second factor is “incredibly loyal customers.” Some regular customers come in for lunch every weekday and some have passed the tradition on to their children and grandchildren.
One longtime customer for many years came in every Saturday morning to get a large pepperoni. “We’d put it in the oven a few minutes before 11 and hand it to him when he came in,” he says. The customer, now a senior, still comes in every week, but he comes by bus on Wednesdays and now he orders a small pizza, Windle says.
Another memory involves a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary. A couple dropped by to find the restaurant under renovation.
“We told them the place wasn’t really open,” Windle says. “But they wanted to have a pizza to celebrate their anniversary. So I let them in and sat them at a table. I told them the kitchen wasn’t really set up but I could make them a pizza. They ate their pizza, then they turned on the jukebox and they had a dance.
“We have a lot of stories like that.”
Chef Bondi’s Pizza
Phil DiLosa is happy to be at the helm of a St. Thomas, Ont., pizzeria he says has outlasted 25 other local pizza businesses.
In the 1960s DiLosa left his job as a newspaper linotype operator to work full time at Chef Bondi’s in St. Thomas, Ont., under his friend Agostino (Gus) Bondi. He soon became partners with Gus in the growing pizzeria. DiLosa handles day-to-day operations while Bondi prefers a behind-the-scenes role.
Chef Bondi’s, which has seen railway and automotive booms come and go, celebrated its 50th anniversary in May 2014.
It’s clear DiLosa’s heart is in St. Thomas, a railway city with a population of about 37,000. The “automotive town” was anchored for years by a Ford plant and spinoff businesses Lear Seating, Therm-O-Disc and Timken, but lost much of its industry when Ford closed the plant in 2011.
DiLosa says they used to deliver to Timken at lunch and dinner and during Ford’s heyday they delivered for three meals a day. That thriving delivery route has ended.
Yet he sees a lot of potential in the city and in particular in the restaurant’s downtown location on Talbot Street within easy walking distance to the intra-city railway track being built to link the old Canada Southern railway station with a Via Rail station the city is refurbishing. The project is expected to give tourists a direct route between tourist town Port Stanley and London.
“Everything in the store is made from scratch,” says DiLosa, who says most of his business is takeout. He has been buying ingredients from just three suppliers since the 1970s because the quality is good and consistent.
The veteran pizzaiolo says he believes they have stayed in business by focusing on the traditional items they do best. The pizzeria serves two styles of pizza: original, which DiLosa describes as crisp and chewy, and Chicago style, where the cheese goes on top and the crust is softer and contains whole wheat.
Which sells best? “It’s about 50-50 between the two,” he says.
He likes to stick with traditional, time-tested ingredients and is not interested in branching out to such items as chicken and broccoli, as some other pizzerias have.
The shop has always sold pasta, he says. Pizza, panzerotti, spaghetti, ravioli, manicotti, lasagna – these staple items sell well, especially panzerotti, which is so popular it’s up there with pizza on the front awning. He sells about 150 pasta orders a week.
DiLosa believes in offering deals, but he emphasizes they are special offerings and ways of combining items, not deep discounts. The shop has had a Tuesday special “forever” and a “3-on-3” that offers three pizzas with three toppings is very popular.
To give some idea of the changes half a century can bring, he says that a case of cheese that is now $200 cost $29 in 1964.
The business reaches out to the St. Thomas community by doing catering for such events as buck and does and midnight wedding buffets. Another community initiative, school delivery, the shop finally gave up after 25 years because it proved to be a losing proposition for the restaurant given the time and labour spent preparing the pizzas and the slim margins that resulted.
The biggest change over the years, says DiLosa after some thought, has been in the demand for more toppings. Ham and pineapple – Hawaiian pizza – was unheard of in the 1960s. But while that innovation took hold, other items over the years did not, always bringing them back to their old standbys. He recalls introducing charbroiled Bondi Burgers, which were popular but turned out to be too costly, with the open flame elevating their insurance rates.
DiLosa takes pride in his hardworking staff of eight. His crew is made up largely of employees in their mid-20s and 30s. He hires through the government employment office, which does a good job of matching employee and employer needs. His secret for retaining happy employees is to give them some responsibility; for instance, if an employee wants a day off, he tells them to arrange it with the other employees. Flexibility is also important, he says, adding that he tries to be approachable. “I tell everyone, if you have a problem just come to me and we’ll solve it.”
The shop is covered in photos of teams he coached and sponsored over the years, including those of his sons and 10 grandchildren. A prominently displayed plaque honours a local team that made it to the OMHA finals in 1978-79.
The centrepiece of the wall is a large black-and-white photo of Bobby Orr showing Orr flying through the air as he is tripped after scoring the winning goal in the Stanley Cup in 1970. The NHL legend gave the photo to DiLosa. Below it is a signed print of the photo that reads, “To my friend Phil, Best wishes.
Love your pizza!”
He and Bondi would like to sell the business, but they want a buyer who will nurture it and be a good fit. The parnters are committed to helping with the transition, however long it may take.
“I worked so hard,” he says. “I’m not just going to give it to anybody.”
Congratulations to pizzerias over 50 and thriving!
- Antonino’s Pizzeria and Panini, Concord, Ont. (est. 1967)
- Armando’s Pizza, Windsor (est. 1967)
- Bitondo’s, Toronto (est. 1967)
- Capri Family Restaurant, Hamilton, Ont. (est. 1963)
- Danforth Pizza House, Toronto (est. 1964)
- Don’s Pizzeria, Timmins, Ont. (est. 1963)
- Firenze’s Pizza, Sarnia, Ont. (est. 1966)
- Franco’s Restaurant, Windsor (ext. 1958)
- Il Paesano Pizzeria and Restaurant, Etobicoke, Ont. (est. 1959)
- Napoli Pizzeria, Sydney, N.S. (est. 1962)
- Peter’s Pizza, Aylmer, Ont. (est. 1965)
- Pizzeria Italia, Barrie, Ont. (est. 1966)
- Pizza Nova, Toronto (est. 1963)
- Pizza Pizza, Toronto (est. 1967)
- Pizza Place, Winnipeg (est. 1969)
- Pizzeria Napoletana, Montreal (est. 1948)
- Sam’s Pizzeria and Cantina (est. 1946)
- Tre Colori, Montreal (est. 1967)
- Tony’s Famous Italian, London, Ont. (est. 1961)
- Vesuvio Pizzeria & Spaghetti House, Toronto (est. 1957)
We feel certain there are more pioneering pizzerias out there. If you know of an operating Canadian pizzeria celebrating more than 50 years in business, let us know! Contact editor Colleen Cross at 519-428-3471 or email@example.com.