Had Brian Vallis not taken his family to France more than 20 years ago to pursue his dream of being a professional triathlete, the St. John’s restaurant Piatto might never have opened its doors.
“In 1990, my wife and I moved our three kids to the south of France for a year,” says Vallis, sitting in his Duckworth Street pizzeria with his daughter, Kate.
Piatto — which serves traditional Neapolitan margherita pizza — opened its doors in 2010 and a second location in Halifax in 2012, and is opening spots in Charlottetown and Moncton this year, with a fifth planned for Dartmouth, N.S., next year. Brian says the seeds were planted for him as he — while training daily for triathlons, a final attempt to realize his dream of becoming a professional athlete — took his children to the market in St. Tropez to buy fresh vegetables.
“We started eating out of this pizza truck in the market in St. Tropez. And the pizza was spectacular,” he says.
Kate, who runs the St. John’s restaurant, remembers those days too.
“It was amazing. They had a wood-burning oven in this little truck, and they had the pizzas on display and you’d order your slice,” says Kate, who was 10 at the time. “They had it cut into quarters, and they’d throw it back into the wood-burning oven for a second just to reheat it, and they’d be constantly making them and topping them and taking them in and out of the oven.”
That’s where it started for Brian, but those seeds took a while to germinate. He worked for a while in the broadcast industry, then as a consultant, and then found himself working in London for five years with a British media company, starting in the late ’90s, where he met co-worker Salvatore Cimino. With Cimino single and Brian’s family back home in Newfoundland, he found himself eating out with his Italian coworker after long hours in the office.
“He’d say, ‘Brian, we’re going to go for pizza, but we have to go for Italian pizza!’ He wouldn’t let you have any other kind,” says Brian.
Cimino took him to every pizzeria he knew in London — and Brian visited Italy as well — and when Brian’s contract was up and he returned to Newfoundland, he knew he no longer wanted to spend 35 weeks of the year on the road. He told his wife, Janine, that he didn’t want to travel anymore.
“She goes, ‘Yeah, well, that’s great. So what are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but I think I’m going to open my own pizzeria,’ and she goes, ‘Oh my God. What have you been taking?’” says Brian, laughing.
Kate confirms the restaurant idea “wasn’t overly well received” at first.
“After Brian first started talking to Janine about it, he started talking to the rest of us about it,” she says.
“I thought it was a good idea, but everyone else wasn’t really on board, and we used to have to leave the house and go to the Duke (of Duckworth) and have a pint and talk about the potential, because everyone else in the house was like, ‘Don’t want to hear about it! Not going to happen!’”
Brian had a vision for a pizzeria that was unlike what most North Americans are used to — not thick-crust or pizza by the slice, not a greasy, dingy place better suited for late-night bar-goers scarfing down mountains of cheese and pepperoni and bacon.
“When I think about a pizzeria, I think about the experiences I had in France and Italy and London, and it was a place that you went to and you’d get really good quality food in a casual environment, and you could get decent wine with it,” he says.
“If you go to a pizzeria in North America, the wine that they typically serve is the lowest-priced bottle on the liquor store shelf, and they sell it for two and a half times.”
Brian wanted a place to provide fine food, casual dining, good wine and good coffee to finish the meal.
“Most restaurants don’t do good coffee. Good coffee to me has to be espresso-based,” he said.
And the Vallises also wanted to mix in England’s pub culture.
“When you go into your local, everyone knows your name, they know what you usually have, they know what table you usually sit at. We wanted to cultivate that environment here as well.”
Intense pizzeria training in California followed for Brian, both to learn the business and to find out if he had the stomach for owning his own restaurant. Satisfied that he did, Vallis developed a financial model that he felt indicated a Neapolitan-style pizzeria would fill a void in St. John’s, and posed very little risk. Kate says their confidence seemed warranted right from the day Piatto opened its doors.
“As soon as we opened the door, there were people outside waiting,” she says. “Everyone was really excited to either a) try something new that they’ve never tried, or b) anyone who has experienced a wood-fired or thin-crust pizza was really excited to get something that’s not the double-meat, double-cheese carb-coma pizza.”
For Brian, the certification by Italian Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletana — which inspects and recognizes restaurants that serve pizza made by traditional Neapolitan standards — is a crucial standard for his restaurants to attain.
“You have to use type 0 or 00 flour, you have to use San Marzano tomatoes, you can only use fresh yeast in the making of the dough, you can only use sea salt,” he said. “You can only use a wood-fired oven. You have to cook your pizzas in less than 90 seconds. You can only make them on marble, you can’t take the dough off the marble when you’re stretching it.”
It didn’t take long for the rest of the family to get on board — son John will manage the Moncton operation, and Brian’s other daughter, Jay, is looking after Halifax. The family has taken on a business partner to operate the Charlottetown location. And Brian says his wife doesn’t think he’s crazy anymore.
“She really likes the restaurant, and she really likes the food,” he says. “She does all the decorating for the different seasons — she does a great job decorating, she’s got a real eye for stuff like that.”