This Toronto chef is resurrecting a 50-year-old Etobicoke pizza joint
1 year ago
1 year ago
Capi's Pizza is an unassuming pizzeria comfortably straddling the borders of Toronto and Etobicoke in between the Humber Valley Village and Lambton Mills neighbourhoods. Rounding out the corner of a small strip plaza, it may be easy to miss due to its physical location but it would be erroneous to do so.
It's a bright and airy space with seating for 12 diners, direct sightlines into the humble but pristine kitchen and minimal decor save for a few antique mirrors and a beloved map of Italy from the owner's childhood home. At a glance, you can find pizzas topped with only the freshest and hand-prepped ingredients made from scratch, weekend specials such as porchetta sandwiches, take-home lasagna trays and classic Italian soft drinks such as Brio and San Pellegrino sodas to wash it all down.
Owned and operated by Mike Schillaci, who on most lunch services is a one-man army working the cash till, taking orders, firing pizzas and serving guests until his secondary pizzaiolo comes in to assist with dinner service. "I started making pizza professionally in the '90s and have learned from chefs in Italy as well as Switzerland. Over the years, the emergence of the internet and people googling to find out what the singular best pizza makes it hard to go against current trends, which have been for a while now: 'Neapolitan pizza,' Schillaci says. "Other businesses were getting verified by the AVPN, an association from Italy that verifies what true Neapolitan pizza is according to their own standards, leaving very little room for anything else that wasn't that."
It’s hard to compete with the other places that are looking to shave down on food costs and resorting to pre-made ingredients when I value doing everything from scratch.
Chef Mike Schillaci pictured inside his Etobicoke restaurant, Capi's.
The business was meant to be his new venture after paying his dues in several notable local Italian eateries, including Terroni and Sette Mezzo, followed by a few years as a commercial realtor before returning to his passion for cooking. Despite numerous years working in countless restaurants, he is very frank about the people who had the most significant impact on him. "I was born in a kitchen with an army of Italian women feeding us constantly. My grandparents had huge tomato gardens and preserved food like salumi, wine, sauce, etc., year-round. I've also worked in dozens of restaurants, but It's my Nonni and my mom that deserves the credit for the food I make now," says Schillaci.
With a lease penned in February of 2020, menu concept solidified, and staffing plans to see the operation through to its planned March 1, 2020 opening, the abrupt break would come swiftly and last longer than anyone was prepared for.
"I was really disappointed with how the federal government handled the situation and the lack of any real support for small businesses. It's hard to even talk about. There was no wage relief, very little rent relief and so many obstacles to jump through as a new business to prove you even qualify for any support. How do you show revenue loss when you are only in year one and starting from zero?" laments Schillaci.
These sentiments are echoed by many in the food and beverage industry, who have had to battle rising ingredient costs and increased wage demands consistently. "I felt like throwing these tables into the middle of the street to make a point. What do I need these tables for? We open, we close, we open, we close. I was getting motion sickness from trying to keep up," says Schillaci. It is clear that what he's been through has worn down the tread on his wheels, but what is even more evident is that his passion continues to foster the strength needed to push through oncoming obstacles and bring only the best to his customer base -- both old and new.
Despite the ongoing rollercoaster of emotions and challenges that came with opening a business on the cusp of a global pandemic, Schillaci finally feels the rhythm of what it means to be a small business owner; the upside, downside and every complicated layer in between.
The pizzeria’s namesake “Capi’s” has been in the neighbourhood in some variation for over 50 years and has gone through many different iterations of ownership, most recently an ambitious but ultimately confusing restaurant offering pizzas, wings, wonton soup and Vietnamese Pho. Suffice it to say the previous concept did not take. “I kept the name because of the pandemic. I had originally planned to change the name and start fresh but when the neighbours found out that I was going to be resurrecting it, they were all like, ‘YES !! Capi’s is back!’....they were all very excited; there was so much community support for it. So I stuck with Capi’s because it was the neighbourhood that kept me alive throughout the height of the pandemic,” says Schillaci.
The space is an unapologetic no-frills classic pizza joint with a familiar ease about, palpable upon entry. Pizza boxes stamped with the business name are stacked high and ready to be of service. A small selection of retail goods such as imported Italian olives, canned tomatoes, nougats and a specialized holiday panettone from Dolce and Gabbana are displayed behind the cash. A to-the-point chalkboard displays the menu offerings, each item attached a fond memory from the owner’s past and carefully curated to include customer favourites as well as his proud original creations.
Despite the ever-changing hands in ownership through the decades, the one consistent offering was pizza, and as any pizza connoisseur will tell you, it all starts with the dough. The dough here pulls from all the various places Schillaci has worked at (with his own twist, of course). He takes into account the gut health of his customers, opting for as pure of a flour blend as possible. “It all starts with a mother, much like a sourdough and then we use 00 flour from Italy which has a lower percentage allowance for herbicides as well as stone-milled Canadian whole wheat organic flour,” he says. The dough is made and fermented in bulk for 48 hours before it is rolled and allowed to rest again overnight for another 1-2 days before it is used.
The use of fresh ingredients, as well as respect for the process, is undeniable here. “It’s hard to compete with the other places that are looking to shave down on food costs and resorting to pre-made ingredients when I value doing everything from scratch,” he says. From the simple act of opting to use whole Italian olives, pitting and slicing them by hand instead of ordering the less superior pre-sliced ones as well as actually roasting and peeling their own red peppers. It’s very clear that rising costs of ingredients and labour have not meant a sacrifice in quality or integrity.
The Calabrese pizza.
The Tartufata pizza.
The Pinco Pallino pizza.
Of the 25 or so menu offerings, the chef’s personal favourite is the Calabrese. The pizza is a tribute to his mom Micki, who also happens to drop by from time to time to help make the lasagna specials regularly offered. The pizza is composed of a house-made 'nduja sausage that gets perfectly charred and rendered during the quick 5-minute baking process and sliced red onions, sweet and mild whole green olives, mozzarella and a house tomato sauce base.
Another pie proudly served is the Tartufata, and true to its name, it showcases truffles and mushrooms at the forefront. A creamy Italian bechamel or ‘Panna’ serves as the base for sliced cremini mushrooms, lemon zest, truffle oil and if it happens to be a day when fresh truffles are available, they are generously rasped on top.
The Pinco Pallino is a special pizza that does not currently have its own bolded space on the menu board but rather one of the ‘off menu’ specials available and known by regular patrons. It is topped with a basil pesto base, mozzarella, mortadella, broken burrata and then toasted and chopped pistachios. Like the Pinco, about a handful of off-menu items are endearingly scribbled onto the bottom left hand of the shop’s chalkboard, a space for the chef’s new creations to be tested for a hopeful chance at one day making it to the big leagues.
The Quattro pizza.
The Sette Mezzo.
Those who are indecisive and looking for a bit of variety in their pie can opt for the Quattro which translates to four in Italian, denoting the four different quadrants and their toppings: Italian ham, roasted red peppers, asparagus, sliced mushrooms all atop the same classic tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese base.
The Sette Mezzo is a rather unexpected offering at a pizza place, as it is not itself a pizza (though the same dough base is used for this wrap) but rather a wrapped focaccia reminiscent of a classic pita wrap. A nice contrast to the hot and cheesy pizzas, this rolled sandwich has creamy mascarpone, smoked salmon, briny capers as well as crisp and fresh greens.
The Insalata Burrata.
Despite the ongoing rollercoaster of emotions and challenges that came with opening a business on the cusp of a global pandemic, Schillaci finally feels the rhythm of what it means to be a small business owner; the upside, downside and every complicated layer in between. He is equal parts anxious and excited to come out from under the thumb of the ongoing pandemic to serve enthusiasts and neophytes alike with an authentic Italian pizza experience, cultivated with the same heart and intention that’s carried him through the last 20 months.
Capi’s Pizza is located at 4247 Dundas Street West in Etobicoke and is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday to Friday and 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays. They offer full regular menu items on all days and weekend specials such as porchetta sandwiches and frozen lasagna trays for takeout and reheat. Delivery orders can be placed on UberEats or DoorDash or called directly to them at (416) 231-9995 for pick up. Keep an eye on their Instagram for regular updates on specials and hours.
Photographs by Paolina Loseto