Last April, John Chetti opened the doors to what was once an antique store/event space in Leslieville. The months previous, the real estate developer had been hard at work gutting the space and transforming it into Queen Margherita Pizza, a strictly-pizza establishment that prides itself in dishing up authentic Neapolitan pies. “The place didn’t look like this,” he told OurFaves recently. “But I’ve always had the vision of opening up this type of restaurant. I came close three or four different times and then for some reason or another, it never went through. Finally, this space came and we took a chance and we did it.”
So what is Queen Margherita Pizza exactly? It’s Chetti’s baby – a dream project predicated on the idea that fresh, high-quality ingredients will be enough to keep customers coming back to a restaurant that serves only pizzas (with four daily appetizers, depending on what Chetti can get his hands on for the day). “You can’t get the same quality of ingredients in any kitchen other than our’s,” he explained. “We order everything fresh and we order the best. We don’t use fake cheese. We get fresh fior di latte (that’s mozzarella made from buffalo milk to the unschooled) every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Everything we do comes in fresh and everything’s Italian. That’s what we know and what we do. Cooks, chefs, ingredients – anything we do is Italian-based.”
It’s a noble ideology that governs QMP, but lofty concepts don’t necessarily translate into instant success. Judging from QMP’s steady stream of patrons in the evening, it’s not faring so badly. But there’s another pizza joint in town. You may have heard of Pizzeria Libretto, the crown jewel of pizza among Toronto’s trendsetting crowd. Nestled on Ossington in Portugal Village, Libretto is packed daily from about 7pm to closing in spite of its no reservations policy (QMP takes reservations). In a conversation with OurFaves, Chetti weighs in on the so-called “Toronto Pizza War” and reveals where he goes for the best spaghetti and meatballs.
What’s your most popular item at QMP?
Probably the margherita pizza. It’s what we’re known for.
Why is it so great?
When you make something so simple, your ingredients have to be good. You can’t mask it. We give you the rawest form of cooking that we do. We let the artisanal work of the pizza maker shine through. We let the product shine through and we let the ingredients blend together so that you can taste what pizza’s all about. We don’t load it up so that you get only cheese and you end up with a gooey mess. It’s simple, it’s rustic. No two pizzas look the exact same but they always taste great.
What’s your favourite pizza?
Margherita and then the Diavolo (pizza with hot peppers, sopressata and black olives).
What’s the story behind your oven?
It cooks the pizzas in 90 seconds. It gets between 800 and 900 degrees. That’s basically the be all and end all: a great oven. Great pizza maker, great ingredients, great end products.
There are some comparisons being made between QMP and Pizzeria Libretto. What do you say to all of that?
I say the comparisons are fun. I think that they do some things very well and we do some things very well. And they’re two different dining experiences all together, but both are equally committed to doing a high-grade quality pizza which probably limits us to east end/west end (comparisons) which opens us to the rivalry of pizza. But I’ve eaten at Libretto many times and they’ve been here. It’s relaxed. We have a good relationship, I think. I don’t think it’s stressful.
So you’re not arch pizza rivals?
Not at all. It’s not even competition. I think when you’re the best at what you do and someone else is at that level, you have more respect and admiration (for that) than taking a baseball bat to them or something silly like that.
Where else do you eat around Toronto?
I go to one restaurant for one particular dish. So I’ll go to Lee’s for the Singapore slaw. The slaw at Lee’s is very inventive. Colour, height, the detail that goes into the dish. I’ll go to Scaramouche for the coconut cream pie.
What’s the most bizarre food combo you’ve had in the city?
I can’t say horse brain at Black Hoof is bizarre because we grew up with that. We eat the whole lamb head, we eat the brain, we eat everything. Some might say that’s weird, but for us, that’s pretty normal. That’s status quo. I think Chinese food is bizarre. Some of the stuff, you don’t even know what it is and you just eat it for the sake of eating it. You have no idea what it is because you have no idea what you even ordered and I love doing that. I love ordering three different dishes that you have no idea what they are just to see how good it is.
What’s the best dish you’re known for preparing at home?
I think it’s a tie between spaghetti and just a good roast in the oven with root vegetables. We make both of them a lot. When you go out, buy something fresh. Take it home and don’t maniplate the heck out of it. Let its natural flavour shine through. Salt, pepper, a little bit of good olive oil, that’s the best.
Your tomato sauce is notoriously simple. What do you put in it?
We use DOP tomatoes (canned tomatoes that orginate from San Marzano, Italy, known for its flavour, firm pulp and low seed count) which brings our food costs up dramatically, but it’s an expense we’re not only willing to take, but we feel is necessary in order to protect the history of our pizza – of what it’s meant to be, of how it separates us from somebody else. I can save half and go for regular tomatoes in a can, but it just wouldn’t be the same experience. There’s going to be a handful of people who can’t tell the difference, but I know the difference and I won’t put that forward.
We add basil, olive oil and a little bit of salt. Our food is simple but complex if that makes sense.
Why is tradition so important to you?
It’s all about tradition. That’s what we know. That’s what we do.
Is Italian your favourite cuisine?
Italian, yes. Then Japanese. And French.
Where do you go for those types of cuisine?
For sushi, Japanese, I like Hiro. For French, I would do the new bistro that opened up, Ici. For Italian, that’s weird. Mistura has good Italian food. But they have certain dishes. They’re not 100% Italian. I go home. I go to my mama’s house and see what she’s making for lunch or dinner.
It’s so hard to find carbonara in Toronto. Where do you go?
I don’t think torono has a great carbonara, but I think Buca might be OK. Carbonara is something in Italy, you can get anywhere. It’s incredible. It’s simple. I did it last night when I got home from the hospital after 18 hours. Spaghetti with a little hot pepper, you can do al’olio. Those are quick, simple hearty dishes that always hit home. Maybe Buca’s got the best in the city.
Where do you go for spaghetti and meatballs?
I wouldn’t eat meatballs unless I made them. I’m a snob like that. But I would eat good spaghetti. If I had the choice, I’d go to La Fenice. I’d go to Joso’s for the spaghetti with black ink. They make great risotto. I haven’t been to Enoteca Sociale, but apparently they do good food. But I don’t know. Maybe we’ll have to open up a pasta restaurant like Libretto (Enoteca Sociale operates under the same owners).
Who would be your dream dinner date?
My wife. I haven’t taken her out in a while. Me and my wife get along so it’s always good to take her out.
What’s for dinner tonight?
I’m here tonight so I don’t know. If I was home, it’s Monday. I like having soup on Monday. A nice chicken soup. Maybe a little bit of beef tenderloin or ribs.
Where is your favourite city for food?
Las Vegas. Better than New York, but don’t tell the New Yorkers. I think Las Vegas attracts so many vistors that that’s where the market is and that’s where chefs are opening. That’s where good food is. I think with Vegas, maybe it’s because you’re in a happy mood, even if you’re in a miserable mood, the food will make you feel better.
Interview and photographs by Maria Cootauco