When restaurateur Max Rimaldi, Jamie Cook, and chef Rocco Agostino opened the first Pizzeria Libretto location in 2008, the city was introduced to something new.
Libretto was part of a wave of new rustic eateries (Harbord Room, Delux, Gilead Café, Marben, Grace, Loire, Mildred’s Temple, Table 17, School, and the Black Hoof to name a few), doing away with complex plates and opting for farm-to-table, family-style cooking and in-house cured meats. It was the year we started to see a shift away from fine dining to more casual eating (Nota Bene).
Gary Quinto and Rocco Agostino during the construction of Libretto on University
Rimaldi and Agostino met at Agostino’s Silver Spoon restaurant on Roncesvales. They joined forces with Cook (Maro restaurant) to open the first Libretto. They chose simplicity when creating Libretto's opening menu, it mostly revolved around the restaurant’s centerpiece: a wood oven built by a third-generation oven maker in Naples. This was Toronto’s, Canada’s even first real Neapolitan pizza joint. Waiters raced down the restaurant’s dining room with hot pies that arrived minutes after you ordered, with faint hints of wood smoke.
Libretto rocked Ossington, lineups were a daily occurrence. Agostino and Rimaldi wanted to open a neighborhood restaurant, and they knocked it out of the park. In the years that followed, they both applied the same approach to other projects: Enoteca Sociale on Dundas West and A3 Napoli this year on College. The duo, along with business partner Gary Quinto have followed up with three other Libretto locations throughout the city, each unique with its own fingerprint in their respective neighborhoods. The Librettos quickly became the post signs for other pizzerias that opened in Toronto. Over the last seven years, the Libretto group has served over 1.5 million pizzas, each location slings out on average about 2,000 pizzas a week. They’ve also partnered up with Nick auf der Mauer of Porchetta and Co, buying into his business and helping expand the Porchetta & Co. brand with a second location on King West.
The new Libretto on King West, with room for 100 diners and a window into the kitchen
The group’s latest, Pizzeria Libretto King West, sits behind Porchetta & Co in a century-old building with a long narrow alleyway that will transform into a patio next summer, and room for 100 diners. Irfan Bukhari designed the same, along with all previous locations. It still maintains a rustic neighborhood charm with a few noticeable differences.
Aside from the restaurants, Rimaldi and Agostino have also mentored an army of young chefs, cooks, and budding entrepreneurs in the province, never hesitating to pay it forward.
I had the chance to sit down with Quinto and Agostino to chat about the last seven years and the journey they took to open their latest outpost.
Recently you hosted a VIP guest at Enoteca Sociale with American celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich. What was that like?
Rocco Agostino: It was a dream come true, she is a true icon, and she can command the room like no one I’ve ever seen before. When I entered the room she had the whole room silent as she was describing the details about a wine. The grape, vine, roots, soil and rocks about this particular bottle. She loved the food, we the unique opportunity to host her.
Agostino manning one of the ovens at the new Libretto on King West.
Toronto is pretty hot for pizza right now, you’ve noticed this I’m guessing?
RA: Definitely, I’ve seen a few of them. The most interesting being Chris’s (Getchell) Descendant Pizza in Leslieville.
Descendant is incredibly popular. Chris worked for you.
RA: Yeah he came over from Halifax to work at the Ossington Libretto. The thing is there are different styles of pizza now in the city. It’s comfort food. You can have Detroit-style pizza, Sicillian, deep dish, there are variations you want to try. I know I do.
But that wasn’t the case eight years ago.
RA: People are becoming more and more interested in food. We really didn’t expect it to be that busy when we first opened Libretto. We knew we had a quality product but the daily lineups, that was something else. But that’s also changed, the other locations take reservations. Danforth does, so does University.
You’ve always said that Libretto is a neighborhood restaurant, were the subsequent locations intentional?
RA: We hit the neighborhoods we wanted to be in. We had many conversations about them, Danforth was one of them.
But each restaurant, from Ossington to University looks and feels different.
RA: Every restaurant is different; we knew Danforth would be more family friendly. We tweaked University because of the lunch crowd. The places may look different but the experience has to be the same and that has been the goal. It’s all about hospitality otherwise what are we doing?
Gary Quinto: I think the biggest difference with this location is the kitchen window, it's hidden at the other restaurants. Here you can see the dough being made.
What about the food, how has that evolved?
RA: We always try to push, guests want to try different things. But by the same token there are some things we can’t remove from the menu. The calamari for example, its been there from the beginning and we can’t remove that.
What was the biggest challenge you faced with the first Libretto and subsequent locations?
RA: Running out of dough a few times [chuckle]. And consistency. Making sure that every pie tasted the same.
GQ: Then after that, consistency especially when you’re going from one restaurant to the second. The challenge with this space was the mechanical, we wanted to maintain all the original elements as much as we could. These beams are over 100 years old, the floors are over 100 years old
RA: The biggest challenge was temperature. King Street is colder than University, which affects the dough, yeast, proofing levels. It took a while to figure that out.
All the Librettos produce their own dough as a result?
RA: Correct, all dough is made in house. We’re not going to make it in one spot and then try to ship it across the city.
Pizzas are cooked in two hybrid wood-gas offens from third generation oven maker Stefano Ferrara
The ovens are also different. You’re using a wood-fired oven at the Ossington and Danforth locations, and the rest are hybrid-electric ovens. That must create some challenges as well?
RA: Yes, but the hybrid wood-gas ovens are very consistent. The difference is that the wood-fired oven creates a slightly smoke-y taste. But with the hybrid wood-gas we don’t have to worry about rotating coals or temperature.
GQ: There’s more control with the temperature, its why we were sold on it. The pizza oven maker, Stefano Ferrara just created hybrid versions of the same oven. He’s an innovator, and he’s building these new hybrid wood-gas ovens so that restaurants can use them in urban centres because of city code. City codes make it difficult in places like Toronto, Japan.
You first had the chance to try out the ovens in Vegas.
GQ: We were at the pizza expo in Vegas in 2012. We noticed that Ferrara was demoing these new ovens at the show. Rocco asked Stefano if we can cook with it, the first the gas Neopolitan oven to the world. We tried it and we were blown away. It’s the reason why we were able to open on University avenue in the Financial District. The city codes otherwise wouldn’t have allowed it.
You have two ovens at the last three locations?
RA: We didn’t anticipate how intense the busy periods would be at University, we could use a third oven in there now. Two has been the standard since Danforth.
GQ: has been working with the rest of the menu to offer other items, things that may sway people off pizza a little bit but it gets them to try other things. There are healthier options.
Top: Gnocchi fritti with nduja sausage. Bottom: Rocco's salad with heirloom beets, pine nuts, and a crispy egg.
What do you think the diner is looking for these days?
RA: They want to walk into a restaurant and feel comfortable, experience food that is tasty and comforting and with great value. We have a mushroom farrow salad, kale and chickpea salad. Both are vegetarian and very popular. But the pizzas people can’t get enough of those.
You keep mentioning quality and value. I notice that your prices haven’t changed much over the years.
GQ: When we opened, the Margherita pizza was $13, now its $14. Most of the increases we’ve tried to absorb.
RA: A huge reason why we get so many families and return guests is because of the value. We have to maintain that as much as possibly can.
Rocco, you’re really well loved in the industry, can you explain why?
RA: I can’t really comment on that. I don’t know why. We as a team pride ourselves in the quality and all the technical things that chefs look for. So chefs love us because we pay attention to those details? I dont believe that know everything, I believe in learning on a daily basis. I cant see myself at the office, I want to be in the kitchens.
GQ: It’s because he’s such a nice guy, he’s fucking gangster. It’s delicious food, and he created something that didn’t exist before. Young chef sand cooks in this city see him as a mentor and pioneer of this cuisine.
You also have a reputation for mentoring the young cooks in your kitchen, and giving them a chance to step up with new dishes.
RA: We run test kitchens every January where cooks bring their dishes and we go through them. We pick what has potential and what doesn’t, we coach them along the way.
GQ: The test kitchen gives them an opportunity to be creative and try something new. You’re not just a pizzaiolo at Libretto.
Top Left: Libretto's signature Nduja pizza with stracciatella, garlic and basil. Bottom Left: Calamari salad
In the last year alone you’ve opened A3 Napoli on College, you’ve helped Nick get a second Porchetta & Co off the ground, and now this Libretto on King West. What’s next? Are we going to start seeing Librettos across the province?
GQ: Straight up, there are no plans to expand any further. We want to iron out the kinks and get the consistency down. We’ve gotten really good at opening restaurants, and opening three in the last year. So there’s a big company now with all these people that rely on us. So, personally, we want to take some time to make sure our ducks are in a row.
RA: It’s very important to me that all our teams are functioning at the right level. The consistency has to be just right, we need to make sure that every diner leaves happy every time.
Pizzeria Libretto’s newest location is now open at 545 King St. W.