Q&A: Max Rimaldi, the Pizzeria Libretto owner who made Neapolitan pizza a thing in Toronto

Q&A: Max Rimaldi, the Pizzeria Libretto owner who made Neapolitan pizza a thing in Toronto

(Image: Claire Foster)

In the seven years since Pizzeria Libretto first opened on Ossington, co-owner and creator Max Rimaldi has become one of the most influential restaurateurs in the city. There are now three Librettos, along with legions of copycats—this, in addition to his other restaurants, including the much-heralded Enoteca Sociale on Dundas West and two in-the-works collaborations with Porchetta and Co.’s Nick Auf der Mauer: a pizza and porchetta union on King West and A3 Napoli in Little Italy. Oh, and did we mention that Rimaldi also helped finance a little restaurant called Bar Isabel? We met up with Rimaldi to talk about fine dining, Neapolitan pizza and the state of Toronto’s restaurant scene.

A lot of people are familiar with your restaurants, but fewer people know who you are. How did you get into this industry?
I started working in restaurants when I was around 13. I went into a Chinese restaurant in Vaughan and asked if they needed any help—they threw me into the dish pit. It was pretty crazy. I would glance over at the chefs, and they’d be smoking while they tossed the wok. I could see the cigarette getting shorter and shorter, but I never saw the ash land in the food. I’ve sort of been a jack-of-all-trades: I’ve been a server, I’ve worked in the kitchen and I’ve held management positions. I was general manager at Jacob’s Steakhouse, and that brought me to where I am now. I realized that I didn’t really want to do the fine dining thing.

That was right around the time when Toronto as a whole decided that fine dining isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
When I was at Jacob’s, people would come up to me and say, “You don’t have a reservation for me? Do you know who I am?” What am I supposed to say to that?

You were the first to bring actual Neapolitan pizza to the city. How did that come about?
My family’s from a small town close to Napoli that actually sells wood-burning pizza ovens. At first, people didn’t get what we were doing here. People were sending back the pizza because they thought it was burnt, or that it was too wet. I had to put a little note on the menu, and it’s still there today, so people know what to expect. Terroni has crispy pizza, and I love Terroni, but it’s a different type of pizza. All pizza is great, but this is very specific.

How did chef Rocco Agostino come on board?
I worked for him for a number of years at the Silver Spoon, and I kind of fell in love with Rocco as a person—I’m married, by the way, I have a wife. But I’ve worked with old-school chefs that have these crazy tirades and they scream at you and they belittle you. I had so much of that experience, and I absolutely hated it. So, I said that if I ever opened up a restaurant, I’d only do it with someone who’s cool.

Now there are Neapolitan pizzerias all over Toronto. What’s it been like for you to witness that rise?
I didn’t really pay attention to the first couple, because my formula is a little bit different. The one thing that does bother me is when one person calls their pizza Neapolitan, and it’s shit. Then maybe people won’t give us a chance because they tried that “Neapolitan” pizza. That’s the negative side, but it’s great because now Neapolitan pizza is a real thing here.

Over the years, you’ve partnered up with some pretty talented chefs, such as Nick auf der Mauer and Grant van Gameren. What are you looking for when you’re deciding which people to invest in?
Well, I need to be a fan. The first time I went to The Black Hoof, I was blown away. I had read about it on Chowhound and other blogs, and then I went to eat there, and Grant’s the nicest guy in the world, and Jen Agg is pouring me stuff that goes so well with what I’m eating. But I also like to click with people. If I can’t get along with you then we’re not going to do business. There’s a lot of intuition involved.

What was it like getting Grant on your side?
I had originally established a relationship with Grant because we used to invite chefs to put their charcuterie on our menu. So, when I first called up Grant and asked if he would be interested in that, he said “No way.” We talked and talked—we ended up talking for an hour that first time. And by the time I was done, he said maybe he’d give me something—we realized that we speak the same language. So when I heard that he was moving away from The Black Hoof, I told him if he ever wanted to do anything, to let me know. And that’s it.

He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who wants any authority over him.
He’s actually a sponge. He’ll sit there and gather information and ask a lot of questions. With me, he learned a whole other side of the business, not just cooking but also how you run your back-of-house. I’m pretty proud to see where he is right now.

Now you’re expanding Pizzeria Libretto across the city. How do you maintain quality while increasing quantity?
That’s actually the biggest hurdle. When my partners and I sat down to talk about expanding, we said that we wouldn’t do this if the quality was going to suffer. If anything, the quality has to go up. So you standardize things. Now, instead of Rocco just coming up with a dish, there’s a procedure around it. We have videos now that we make for each dish so that the staff can create it the same way every time.

Some people just open one place, and dedicate their lives to that one place.
There’s a lot to be said for those people who just work on one place. That’s definitely one way of doing it—it’s a very Italian way, actually. Da Michele in Napoli has been around for over 100 years, and when they expand they basically just make their dining room bigger. The other way to do it is to replicate and open up on the other side of the city. For me, I’d be happy if I had a Libretto in my neighbourhood, so that’s the inspiration.

What do you think of the rate at which restaurants have been opening in this city? Do you think there are too many?
It’s very exciting to see where Toronto’s at, and I think the culinary bar has been raised many notches over the past 10 years. But when I hear about restaurants closing down, it breaks my heart, because I know there are real people behind those and real life savings. I wish people would just chill a little bit and do things right, instead of opening up on a shoestring budget and then closing a year later.

What’s on the horizon for you?
Well, I’m opening up A3 Napoli, and I’ve got a couple other ideas in my head but I think I need a break. My job now is to be the concept guy, and I don’t know if I can just be creative all the time. Sometimes you need a break—just to go hang out in the forest or something.

You’ve expressed interest in opening up a restaurant in New York City. Does that still appeal to you?
Grant and I took a trip to New York for inspiration. New York has service down, it has execution down—but the calibre of some of the restaurants in Toronto is very high. I totally think that some of our concepts are exportable to places like New York. I think a Burger’s Priest would do just fine in New York. I think a Bar Isabel would do amazing in New York. And I think a Pizzeria Libretto might do amazing in New York, as well.