Authentic seems to be the current darling of restaurant trends but, for many establishments, it’s easier said than done. After all, does it really make sense to serve wine in tumblers and adorn the table with paper napkins if customers don’t have ample context to appreciate the gesture? What if your market relies on a significant number of international tourists? Through what lens will they view authentic? It can be a challenging balance to strike, but for The Grand Pizzeria and Bar in Ottawa, Ont., it’s a matter of heart, mind and appetite.
Authentic seems to be the current darling of restaurant trends but, for
many establishments, it’s easier said than done. After all, does it
really make sense to serve wine in tumblers and adorn the table with
paper napkins if customers don’t have ample context to appreciate the
gesture? What if your market relies on a significant number of
international tourists? Through what lens will they view authentic? It
can be a challenging balance to strike, but for The Grand Pizzeria and
Bar in Ottawa, Ont., it’s a matter of heart, mind and appetite.
The Grand Pizzeria opened on May 1, 2009, in what was once the Grand
Hotel that originally opened in 1882. The restaurant boasts 150 seats
inside, with another 170 seats on the patio, and blends old world
traditional recipes with an urban décor, featuring authentic southern
Italian food. A custom-designed wood-burning oven sits in the middle of
the dining room with a pizzaioli producing delicious pizza.
“Our location is excellent,” says Stephen Mitchell, general manager.
“There was another establishment here for years that also served
Italian food but it took a very different approach from what we offer.
It was a very straightforward North American Italian positioning. When
we took over the location, we made the construction obvious and
promoted the fact it was under new ownership aggressively to let people
know there was a different plan afoot.”
Launching at the start of a busy tourist season smack dab in Canada’s
capital city was an interesting way to initiate the business. Patrons
hail from all over the world and many of them are intimately familiar
with authentic Italian fare.
“We define our target throughout the year as the foodie,” says
Mitchell. “However, in June and July we say we target the hungry. We do
find a multinational clientele is a bit more open-minded. Many of them
have been to Italy so they understand the importance behind the
wood-burning oven and wine in tumblers. We initially used paper napkins
instead of cloth because that’s what our pizzaoli said would be
authentic but many customers didn’t make that connection because they
hadn’t been to Italy so we elected to switch to cloth. We also
initially served the wine in tumblers to mimic the authentic Italian
experience but switched to crystal with stems because the clientele was
more receptive to stemware.”
The Grand Pizzeria staff recognizes that, while they provide an
authentic Italian experience, they are still located in Ottawa.
Authenticity is tempered with sensible business decisions. “The
customer gets what they want,” says Mitchell. “Our menu says we won’t
make changes to the dishes but we do if asked. We don’t offer a
pineapple and ham pizza though and we do get some requests for that.”
The Grand’s menu includes a split between pasta and pizza dishes with
names such as Guanciale. Authenticity is as much about the vibe as it
is about what’s on the plate, and front-line staff are key to creating
the necessary atmosphere.
“Our servers are coached on those points we feel are important for enhancing the authentic experience,” says Mitchell.
They use the Internet to confirm the correct pronunciation of food
items and other Italian terms. Many key members of the team and
ownership are Italian so they help relay those little details that help
the staff create the ambiance.
“We also realize that as the tourist season ends and our base extends
more deeply into the local customer that we’ll need to shift gears a
bit. A new menu as of October will offer some new proteins. We’ve not
had any chicken throughout the summer but this is Ottawa so our
compromise will be to add some chicken to the pasta.”
It’s a strategy that makes a lot of sense. Canadian consumers have been
mainly exposed to a dumbed-down version of Italian cuisine for years so
it will take time and perseverance to communicate the difference
authenticity makes. For many establishments, obtaining an official
certification such as VPN (Verace Pizza Napoletana) is seen as an
important step in their quest for authenticity. An organization exists
in Napoli named the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana responsible for
overseeing the creation of authentic Neapolitan pizza. To be vera pizza
Napoletana, or true Napoletana pizza, the dough must be hand-pressed
with Italian flour and the precise amount of water. The tomatoes are
always Italian, usually San Marzano style and the mozzarella cheese
(bufala mozzarella) is that from water buffalo in the region between
Napoli and Roma.
“We hope to have VPN certification within a year,” confirms Mitchell.
“We do feel it completes the package and is an important thing to do as
a branding initiative.” With VPN certification, restaurants receive a
sign identifying a restaurant as a member. A certificate is also
awarded announcing that the restaurant is a member and that the
consumer can expect to enjoy authentic pizza there.
For the Grand Pizzeria, it’s about marrying that authentic Italian
experience with the ebb and flow of its customer base. Staff are very
aware that this journey is a process and it shouldn’t be rushed. That
sounds like a plan rooted very much in being faithful to internal
rather than external ideals and it doesn’t get much more authentic than
Michelle Brisebois is a freelance writer and marketing professional
with experience in the food, pharmaceutical, financial services and
wine industries. She specializes in retail brand strategies.
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