The Little Italy eatery has attracted a big following since it opened in mid-May.
492 Rochester St., 613-422-6462, farinellaeats.com
Open: Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., closed Monday
Prices: pizza slices cut to order and sold by weight, between $2.99 and $3.60 per 100 grams
Access: no steps to front door or washrooms
Last week, a colleague of mine was in desperate need of a pizza pick-me-up.
The day before we went for lunch, she had what she said was the worst pizza of her life. Ordered from a west-end chain, its crust was tough, but also droopy in spots. The pizza was short on cheese, but also greasy from its meaty components. In short, those slices had no redeeming qualities.
I wanted to restore her faith in pizza by taking her to a pizza purveyor whose standards had not slipped so egregiously. Off we went, then, to Farinella.
Opened in mid-May in a former scooter shop on Rochester Street, this casual eatery in Little Italy has been doing brisk business thanks to impeccably made pizza and a novel-in-Ottawa business model that strives for speedy gratification. And if that weren’t enough, Farinella also turns out some strikingly fresh and varied gelato.
Before our visit, I’d eaten twice already at Farinella, joining the inevitable peak-hour lineups that fortunately are fast-moving. I’ve savoured enough examples of meaty, cheesy and vegetable-forward goodness to feel that Farinella is basically a sure thing for deep and resolutely traditional pizza satisfaction.
It didn’t take long to figure out the ordering routine here, which is common in Italy yet new to Ottawa.
When the queue brings you to one of Farinella’s counterpersons, you ask for descriptions of the day’s four kinds of pizzas — meaty, cheesy, veggie or plain — that are ready for consumption. The pizzas on display in front of you are Roman-style creations, with bread-y bases that are oblongs almost one-metre long and toppings that Farinella’s co-owner Cesare Agostini, an Ottawa-raised 27-year-old who spent four years making pizza in Rome to gain his expertise, says are “strictly traditional.”
Then you ask for as much as you want of however many pizzas. The staffer cuts that much pizza off the oblong, and your order is weighed and priced, with the most expensive, meaty pizzas going for $3.60 for 100 grams. You pay and then either head home with your box filled with assorted pizza, or take your tray to one of the counters indoors or a no-frills table outside Farinella, which if the place were fancier would be equipped with sun umbrellas.
When my co-worker bit into a slab of pizza topped with shaved asparagus and mozzarella, it washed away her pizza funk. “Mmmm,” she said. “Where have you been all my life, asparagus pizza?”
I’ve asked myself similar questions upon sampling Farinella’s potato pizza, flecked with rosemary and notably peppery, some mushroom pizza that tucked its fungus under dollops of gloriously molten whipped ricotta, pizza that played vibrant fresh tomatoes against their sun-dried cousins and some utterly simple zucchini pizza about which I wouldn’t change a thing.
All of those pizzas did just fine without tomato sauce. If the red stuff is your thing, it stars in Farinella’s basic but satisfying “rossi” pizza.
The choices for carnivores have all hit the spot, including pizzas featuring artichoke and nduja, the spicy and spreadable Italian pork product, or mellow prosciutto cotto blanketed with cheese, or the lucid punch of salami and olives.
In all, every variety of Farinella pizza that I’ve tried has put a smile on my face with forthright combinations of shining ingredients that play well with one another.
While the toppings might vary with every visit, the key constant for me is how good the sturdy crust has been. Agostini told me his pizzas are baked first for up to eight minutes at up to 600F before they are topped and then baked for a few more minutes. The results are crusts that can be deliciously crisp but with a tender crumb, somewhere between pillowy focaccia and a shatteringly hard cracker.
Meanwhile, Cesare’s 24-year-old sister and business partner Nina made her own extended trip to Italy, but specialized for four years in making ice cream rather than pizza. While Cesare plied his craft at the bakery Antico Forno Roscioli in Rome, Nina, soon after graduating from high school in Ottawa, went to Italy to study gelato making, eventually becoming the head gelato maker and general manager at Menchetti in Perugia.
You can taste Nina’s gelato-making cred in the super-fresh ice cream found in Farinella’s showcase. As much as I gravitate to dark chocolate gelato at most opportunities, I’m most likely to order vibrant flavours such as Rhone Valley apricot, Sicilian lemon, Indonesian coconut or sumptuous fior de latte when I next visit. That is, if I don’t order an affogato — a cup of vanilla gelato with a shot with excellent, potent espresso on the side.
The restaurant is licensed but does not yet serve alcohol. While customers now bake outside in the summer heat, a winterized patio is a possibility, Cesare says. Cold weather may see ice pops, cakes and “prettier, daintier things” added as dessert options, Nina says.
As easy as it is to romanticize living and working in Italy, the Agostinis say that returning to Ottawa, where food-business work was in their blood, always beckoned.
“We did not have a glamorous life in Italy,” Nina says. “It was terrible. I hated it,” Cesare adds.
It’s a good thing for Ottawa eaters that the siblings had it hard in Italy and that they returned to their hometown, where they now employ 30 and crank out as many as 150 pizzas in a day. Italy’s loss is Ottawa’s distinct culinary gain, and from now on, it will be hard for me to settle for lesser pizza here.
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