Crystal Carwin Lee (@crystalcarwin) is working her way through the Tomato’s 2013 list of best places to eat or drink in Edmonton. Restaurant profiles will be posted on TLG, and you can find her review of Famoso on her own blog.
When one thinks of traditional Neapolitan pizzerias, Edmonton is likely not the first place that springs to mind. Nevertheless, after founders Justin Lussier, Jason Allard and Christian Bullock — each still plays a role in the company — opened their first Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria location here in 2007, authentic Italian pizza has become synonymous with the city. What has now become an extremely successful franchise is a testament to the vision of these three entrepreneurs and their adherence to approaching the food and the business in the right way.
I sat down for a talk with Justin Lussier who is now the CEO of Famoso to discuss the past, present and future of this Edmonton-born eatery.
With the head office of Famoso now based in Vancouver, I asked Justin to think back to the restaurant’s original days in Edmonton and what made the city the ideal place to be. Aside from the fact that Justin, Jason and Christian were all living in Alberta at the time, Justin said that, in 2007, the economy was great, and there was no one else trying to bring this type of pizza into the market, making it a good fit. Now, he says, compared to other large cities across Canada, the cost of living in Edmonton is still lower while people seem to have more disposable income and are willing to spend it on shopping and dining. However, the biggest draw is that he finds the patrons in Edmonton to be very supportive and loyal, showing their appreciation of good service and food by making a point of coming back. In cities such as Toronto, where the options are endless and customers can be finicky, it can be hard to stay top-of-mind. Here, in Edmonton, Famoso’s restaurants have had ample opportunity to grow.
The restaurant business is one of the toughest out there and Famoso has found itself not only maintaining what they built from the ground up, but also expanding Canada-wide. During our conversation, Justin said that much of that is due to the organization’s philosophy of being a strong local business. He indicated that, with other franchises, individual owners often rely on the brand, allowing that to do the talking. Yet, Famoso prefers to encourage those who choose to take on the name to involve themselves in the local community. The specific endeavours are left up to each location, but prime examples in Edmonton include the Magrath establishment donating 50 cents from every scoop of gelato sold to the development of a park in the neighbourhood, and the downtown restaurant bringing pizzas to the homeless shelters at Christmas time.
It is that sense of connection to their surroundings that makes Famoso a favourite for many. This sentiment is solidified by readers of The Tomato voting the franchise into the list of the top 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton for the second year in a row (no. 53 in 2013 and no. 85 in 2014). The service is always great and so is the food.
This shifted our conversation to the importance of creating that true Neapolitan texture and flavour. Most of the major ingredients used in their restaurants come from within Canada. Even the fior-di-latte — fresh, whole-milk mozzarella — comes from White Gold, a cheese producer out of Calgary, which is run by immigrants from a small cheese-making town in Italy. Where possible, Famoso will bring in produce locally and they are always willing to meet with those types of suppliers to keep those lines of discussion open. They are a business with a big reputation to uphold though, and, as such, it comes down to purchasing power to create that balance for the company and its franchise owners while maintaining the consistency of the food and the authenticity.
The two things they cannot compromise on is the flour and the tomatoes. They bring in tomatoes from the Campania region of southern Italy to impart a naturally sweet and low acidity flavour to the red sauce, and Caputo ’00’ flour is imported direct from Italy. The flour is highly refined and low in gluten, giving the hand-stretched pies their distinct crispy-ness on the outside and soft on the inside texture. Of course, it is possible that over time Famoso may be able to replace the Italian flour with a comparable substitute. The company continues to do their research, testing new flours that are coming into the market as Neapolitan pizza becomes more popular. If they can find something comparable to that found in Italy within a Canadian context, it makes sense to switch.
In the meantime, Famoso restaurants are pushing for increased sustainability by shifting to biodegradable takeout packaging with their coffee cups and lids. Their unique bell-shaped fire ovens that cook a pizza at 900 F in 90 seconds burn gas, so they emit less carbon dioxide than wood, making them more environmentally friendly and efficient.
Friendly and efficient is also what you’ll find with the staff and the service if you make a trip to one of their seven Edmonton locations. The one at Namao Centre is the most recent addition to the franchise in this city. Justin says that the company is happy with the number of restaurants they currently have in Edmonton and he expects that it will remain that way for the time being as they continue to spread into other provinces.
Speaking to Justin, I got the sense that he knew Famoso would be a success from the start, but that he also understands that it takes a lot of perseverance and maybe even a little bit of luck to get to this point. Most of all, he sounds grateful that they began their journey in Edmonton and he looks back on their time here with fondness.