This Toronto restaurant is giving pizza an historic, scrumptious makeover – Toronto Star

It’s mid-afternoon on a Wednesday and Gino Benevenga has been up since 5 a.m. prebaking 167 pinsas at his restaurant, Venga Cucina, within the Junction. He stacks the flatbreads the dimensions of small chopping boards on cooling racks earlier than they go into the fridge. When the restaurant opens at 5 p.m. for dinner, toppings and sauce can be added earlier than they go into the oven once more, this time till the dough is crisp and barely charred.

You possibly can name it pizza, however Benevenga insists it’s pinsa, which differs from the pie most individuals are used to in Toronto. The crust might resemble a focaccia, however once you decide up a sq. it’s noticeably lighter and holds its form. It’s crispy on the surface like a daily skinny crust, however inside it’s ethereal and barely chewy. Two years in the past Benevenga had by no means even heard of pinsa. Now he desires everybody to learn about it.

The pinsas range from simple marinaras to $100 pies featuring exotic meat and cheese.

“The dough rests for 96 hours within the winter — it provides extra crunch and makes it lighter and simpler to digest” is the road Benevenga will repeat to clients throughout dinner service. The pinsas bake at 320C for 3 to 4 minutes within the oven, relying on the toppings, giving Benevenga time emerge to from his station to speak to diners concerning the fermentation occasions and advantages of consuming pinsa.

For some time, Benevenga had a Hawaiian choice on the menu, as a consequence of buyer demand, however he changed that pineapple and ham combo with one he most well-liked: figs and prosciutto and a drizzle of balsamic. He additionally presents a extra gimmicky $100 pie, that includes wild boar prosciutto, wagyu beef bresaola, black truffles and a rare parmigiano reggiano (fortunately, with out gold flakes). “I needed one thing that individuals would discuss,” he says. Since opening two years in the past, he’s bought 4 of them.

On my latest go to throughout dinner service, I caught with the extra primary pinsas: the margherita topped with delicately crisp basil leaves; an fragrant cremini and shimeji mushroom pinsa with caramelized onions, truffle oil, stracciatella and pecorino cheeses (ask for a jar of the housemade chili oil on the facet); and my favorite, the Spicy Gino topped with spicy sausage, nduja, sun-dried tomatoes and fior di latte. As Benevenga and Mary Defreitas, his spouse and co-owner of Venga Cucina, inform me, you possibly can end a complete pinsa with out desirous to take a nap afterwards, as a result of it doesn’t really feel so heavy.

Benevenga makes each pinsa by hand using dough that's been resting for 96 hours.

The pinsas could also be a latest addition to the town’s pizza scene, however the restaurant (at 3076 Dundas St. W., simply west of Keele St.), is a comfy, brick-walled mom-and-pop operation that feels prefer it’s been within the neighbourhood for at the very least a decade. Possibly that’s as a result of for Benevenga, who is 2 months in need of turning 65, it’s a end result of a decades-long culinary journey.

Benevenga was born within the Salerno province in southwestern Italy (the vamp of the boot, if you’ll). “I labored within the meals business since I used to be 16,” he says, “and the sauce I make is what my mother made: simply tomatoes, vinegar and olive oil. We had been a part of the Mediterranean, so the meals may be very easy and engaging.”

He figured working as a cook dinner would pay for his travels and so he did kitchen stints in different elements of Italy and England. In 1980, at 22, he joined a relative in Canada and located himself slinging pies and pastas in a string of Italian joints. He later labored at Pinocchio, a beloved Etobicoke trattoria that, in a 1980 Star evaluation, eating critic Jim White known as “splendidly unique” for including a splash of Angostura bitters to its rooster parmigiana. It was additionally whereas working there that Benevenga met Defreitas via a good friend who was a daily on the restaurant and thought they’d hit it off.

The dough is made from a blend of finely ground 00-wheat flour and soy and rice flours.

In 2016, three years after Pinocchio closed, Benevenga opened his personal place, one thing of a departure from his Italian roots: the Junction Native, an American-style smoked meat spot. The place closed in 2020 as indoor eating shut down.

“It was a foul time, however this gave me the push to alter. With an Italian identify, it’s tougher to promote smoked meat,” he says. “(Pinsas) come a lot simpler and pure to me as a result of I do know the flavours. I’ve the data of Italian cooking.”

Within the early days of the pandemic, eating places had been all about pivoting to takeout, so, for Benevenga, shifting on to pizza made sense. However the metropolis was not quick on regional pizzas: Pizzeria Libretto launched licensed Neapolitan pizza greater than a decade in the past, Leslieville’s Descendant introduced Detroit-style pies, and we’ve additionally seen pizzas impressed by cuisines of the Levant, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Jamaica and the Philippines.

Looking on-line, Benevenga discovered about pinsa, derived from the Latin phrase “pinsere,” which describes the spreading, urgent movement used to stretch the dough. The dough has a better water content material than that of typical pizza, requiring extra resting time to permit the flour to soak up the liquid and kind the bubbles obligatory for its construction. Some recipes counsel a 24- to 72-hour relaxation, however Benevenga finds 96 hours best for max airiness.

Benevenga adds finishing touches to his pinsas fresh from the oven.

Pinsas date again to historic Rome, however Benevenga’s model begins with Di Marco, an Italian meals firm that in 2001 started promoting a contemporary mix for pinsa dough, combining finely floor 00-wheat flour with soy and rice flours. The corporate claims this ends in a crust that’s simpler to digest as a result of it has a decrease gluten content material.

Benevenga took a pinsa-making class on the School of Italian Pizza (sure, it’s a factor) in North York and acquired Di Marco’s pinsa flour mix. He submitted movies of himself making the flatbreads to the Originale Pinsa Romana Association, the physique created by Di Marco in 2016 to implement high quality management worldwide by making eating places adhere to its recipe (which requires shopping for its flour mix, naturally). The affiliation permitted his expertise and added him to its international registry of pinsa-makers.

Out of 195 eating places on its web site, the one different Canadian entry is Joe’s Italian Kitchen in Almonte, Ont.

Regardless of being the town’s first licensed pinsa place, Venga Cucina has a vibe that’s quieter than the hour-long lineups that accompanied the primary licensed Neapolitan locations a decade in the past. It looks like a spot you’d wish to come again to somewhat than a one-and-done entry on a foodie bucket record. It’s a small operation the place each pinsa is handmade by Benevenga.

As 5 p.m. nears and Benevenga prepares to open his doorways for dinner, he hangs vacation decorations whereas Defreitas vacuums the eating room and brings out vases of recent roses. A supply of recent pastas arrives from Petti High-quality Meals throughout the road, and from the kitchen emerges Antonio Giaquinto, the 83-year-old former proprietor of Pinocchio — Benevenga’s outdated boss — who sometimes spends his retirement days serving to out.

“At the moment I cleaned 50 kilos of onions. Now I’m a cleaner. I water the flowers in the summertime,” Giaquinto says. “(Gino is) my finest man and he’s a pleasant individual to start with. I do that for nobody else.”


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