Canadian Pizza Magazine

The Bottega blueprint

Colleen Cross   

Features Profiles

Find out how the Covone brothers brought the taste of Naples to Montreal

About a decade ago, the Covone family decided Montreal’s Little Italy pizza scene was missing something. That something was Napoletana pizza.

Fabrizio Covone, now co-owner of Bottega Pizzeria with his brother Massimo, decided to go to Naples himself, learn how to bake authentic Napoletana pizza and bring this knowledge back to Montreal.

It took two years in Zona Vesuviana, which translates as “closest to the valley,” to learn his trade and earn his stripes among the Naples chefs. Fabrizio lived just outside Naples, working in several pizzerias, making friends and generally assimilating. There was no easy way into the trade, he says, as the old-world secrets are jealously guarded and passed from generation to generation.

“I had to basically prove to them where I was from, that I wasn’t stealing recipes, that I was opening up a place in Canada, and not next door to them,” he says. “You get a certain respect and trust. They open up to you; they show you everything. I’m so grateful for that.”

What is the secret? There are two parts, he says: dough and oven. The dough is well hydrated for between 24 and 72 hours. To bake it properly, his first step on arriving home in Montreal was to import a wood-fired oven capable of reaching temperatures of 900 F in 90 seconds.

Armed with this hard-earned know-how, he and brother Massimo, with support from their parents, Aniello and Giovanna Covone, opened Bottega Pizzeria, their tribute to the classic Napoletana style, in 2006 on St. Zotique Street in Little Italy. It proved such an immediate success that in 2010 they opened a second location on St. Martin Street in Laval.

Massimo, 32, manages all things front-of-house, including accounting, promotion, customer service, staff and dining room service. “I am more on the creative side,” says Fabrizio.

As owner and head chef, Fabrizio, 33, manages the back and they have other chefs as well. “We always jump in when and if we have to.” Fabrizio divides his time between Laval and Montreal and Massimo splits his time three ways among the two Bottega locations and Hostaria, a nearby fine-dining restaurant he co-owns with several partners, including his father.

Aniello Covone is a fixture of the Montreal fine-dining scene, having run La Trattoria Capricciosa beginning in the 1980s, then Il Mulino since the late 1990s, which in early 2012 morphed into Hostaria. Fabrizio and Massimo learned much about the restaurant business working in the family restaurant with their father and mother Giovanna, an accomplished
pastry chef.

“They are our conseillers – our advisors,” he says.

The pizzerias are open from 5 p.m. to midnight and closed Mondays, and they are bustling with customers, especially on summer weekends. Although reservations are a must, staff do try to accommodate walk-in traffic by steering them toward slower times, before 6 p.m. or after 10,
he says.

Why is the place always hopping? Local food critics gave it high marks – in at least one case, four out of four stars, he says, adding that it’s been their goal to raise the bar on the classic pie.

“I hear atmosphere, I hear consistency in the food quality, I hear that people feel like they are not in Montreal, but somewhere else – in Europe, in Italy,” says Fabrizio when asked why people come back.

“Our personalities reflect on our wait staff, our character as well,” he says. “We put a lot of man-hours and a lot of energy into training our staff to run the place the way we’d want it run. When I hear from a client, this waiter did a fantastic job, I know I am doing a fantastic job as well.”

About 20 employees work at each of the two locations. Finding great locations is a high priority and a challenge. It’s difficult to get a balance of all the characteristics you need from someone to do the job, says Fabrizio. “One person is more responsible, one has more character, one is more loyal. But it’s the whole package you want.

“And it’s not easy to find. When we do find that, we are grateful and we treat them with the utmost respect.”

New employees shadow the more experienced for about two to four weeks before they are ready to work on their own. It may take longer if they are part time. “It depends how fast they can learn,” he says.

The brothers try to keep their Montreal and Laval locations as uniform as possible in terms of atmosphere, menu and business operations. The only thing that’s different in Laval, says Fabrizio, is that the head chef offers specials of the day. These depend on both the chef’s creativity and the seasonal produce that’s available.

“That’s the only carte blanche they have and basically the only thing they’ll change between the two menus,” he says. “And we might have a couple different wines, but that’s about it.”

Although their image and service across locations is consistent, they don’t see Bottega as a brand. “We don’t like to look at it as a franchise,” says Fabrizio. “We accommodate the clients of Laval because they are different from the clients of Montreal.”

As for promotion, it’s minimal, he says. But although it’s only in the past year or two they’ve been on social media, those channels buzz with comments like this one posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page by Pascal Iacono: “Amazing food! Great atmosphere. Highly recommended! Must try all the appetizers and pizza. Both locations flawlessly consistent. Amazing wine selection.”

He says they like the immediate feedback they get through Twitter even when they are not at the restaurant, and they have a presence on Instagram because that’s the only social media site some customers use.

“I don’t think it’s a big, big, big necessity to have a full web page. Right now there are places opening up with just an Instagram account and they’re doing well. It’s the right publicity for them.” People want to take one look at their phones and see what’s happening, he says, and no 10 or 15 minutes or even half an hour to do a web search.”

As long as you have a web page, he says, it can be just a splash page with your basic information to allow the customer to get in contact with you and find the restaurant. The average time people spend looking on their phone looking at our web page is a minute to a minute and 20 seconds, he says.

“We have the website,” he says, “but all the clients we’ve gathered have been through bouche à oreille – or word of mouth.”

Their specialty, the Margherita pizza, which features San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, is one reason customers are talking. For Fabrizio, this traditional pie is the great leveller. “My classic is always the Margherita pizza. When I go to any pizzeria in any city. That’s the one I always order; it’s the base of every pizza and it gives you the chance to try the tomato sauce, the mozzarella and the dough all in one bite.”

“If the Margherita is good, all the other pizzas should fall in line,” he says.

Maintaining that kind of quality and consistency is not easy, he says. “I would say the biggest challenge even from Day 1 is keeping the pizza not just as consistent as possible but also as true as possible. That’s the hardest thing.”

Clients regularly ask for substitutions. “For me, it’s not about how the client wants it. It’s about how to duplicate what I learned in Naples. It’s me training the client on how we do it in Naples rather than the other way around,” he says with a laugh.

“Every night there are a lot of ‘No’s.’ We can’t afford substitutions. We must keep the pizza as true as possible to the original. It’s my hardest challenge and my biggest passion, so it works together.”

“That was my biggest fear when we opened the pizzeria. Are people going to understand what a soft dough is? I had people say it feels like it’s undercooked. It’s not undercooked; it’s just a soft dough. It’s pillowy – and if you cut it open, it’s good,” he says.

“The best pizza you could have would be a 12-inch pizza; if you could eat it all and still feel light, that’s the goal.”

Judging by the brisk business these pizzerias are doing, that’s a fait accompli.

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