The motto at Italian restaurant LìOLà (4420 Lévesque Blvd. East, Laval) is “si torna sempre qua,” or “the place you feel the most at home,” and that’s exactly what Italian-Montrealers do — flock to the place where they feel the most at home.
Montrealer Alyssa De Rosa was born and raised in Montreal.
Her grandparents hail from Campobasso, in southern Italy. In the last two years, she’s visited different parts of “the motherland” twice.
“When I tasted the pizza [at LìOLà], I was like, ‘wow, I feel like I never left Italy,'” she says.
“That’s how authentic the pizza was and it does make you feel at home. I mean, I wasn’t born in Italy, but it makes you feel like you’re not travelling that far for real Italian pizza.”
Husband and wife duo Anna Giampà and Matteo Fiorilli founded the restaurant.
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Fiorilli’s father Eduardo, who is from Campania, a region in southwest Italy, is often in the kitchen hand-rolling his own homemade cavatelli.
“What’s missing in there, nonno?” Giampà teases her father-in-law.
“Mostly something from where Anna comes from,” Fiorilli explains.
“My parents hail from the south of Italy,” she adds.
“They’re both deceased, but they come from Calabria, where no meal is complete without peperoncino — hot pepper.”
The restaurant is so authentic that the pizza oven needs to be turned on several hours before a pizza can be made.
It has its own master pizzaiolo, Alessandro Mosca, a certified pizza-making instructor — yes, that’s a thing — and the record-holder in Guinness World Record pizza competitions.
The couple’s children admire him.
“I like to try to show my kids that in order to eat well, you have to know what you’re doing around the kitchen. So, it’s not uncommon for them to help us out as well when we make homemade pasta or when we make meatballs, for example,” Giampà explains.
“It’s all part of the recipe: the love, the experience, the passion. It all makes the food taste better in the end.”
She explains that when you walk into their restaurant, you become part of the family.
“The meal is not just the food,” Anna says. “The meal is the whole thing. It’s sharing, it’s talking, it’s being together.”
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“It comes down to everything together, eating together, being together. That made us want to cook better and make amazing food,” Fiorilli adds.
Being together usually starts with Sunday lunches.
“By the time everybody gets there it’s 1 p.m. and then by 4 p.m., you’re like, ‘oh my God, we’ve been at the table for three hours’ and you say, ‘let’s eat again, who’s hungry? Leftovers?'” Fiorilli says.
“Family is really important in Italian culture and that’s why food is so important because it brings everyone together, so you eat and get fat,” De Rosa adds.
“There’s the pasta, there’s the meat, there’s the salad, there’s the fruit, there’s the dessert, the wine…”
“… and the drama,” Fiorilli laughs.
“… and the drama and the coffee. The espresso at the end and then you’re like this,” De Rosa says, leaning back in her chair.
“I always need coffee after I end a meal. I think I probably started drinking coffee at 14. I think I drank my first glass of wine at seven, but like this much with a little bit of 7-Up, you know — nonna made sure. But no, you had to drink wine with your pasta.”
There is one tradition in particular that has become a right of passage for many Italian families.
“You usually get forced to make tomato sauce at a young age,” De Rosa says.
“They call it asking, but really, they force us,” Fiorilli laughs. “You look forward to it. Deep down you look forward to it.”
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Apparently, the farther away you are from the front of the line, the less experienced you are and the “crappier” job you’ll have. The trick? Always bring a friend.
“A friend of mine couldn’t come up north with me during the end of August because she absolutely had to make tomato sauce with her family,” laughs De Rosa.
Knowing about where you come from is extremely important for Italian families.
“As Italians, we’re also taught Italy is the most beautiful place in the world, maybe because they’re our ancestors and they’re Italian, it’s ingrained,” De Rosa says.
“They might be a little biased, but at the same time, you go there and you’re like, ‘wow, they might be right.'”
Fiorilli notes, “As you can see, I can communicate with my Dad in Italian and he really teaches me the traditions.”
Learning about the culture from first-generation Italians is easy, but De Rosa notes it’ll be difficult to pass on those traditions to her own children.
“As I get older, and say, with my children, it will definitely be harder because my grandparents, sad to say, they might not be here anymore,” she says.
“Who will be the ones teaching them about the culture? It’ll be me or my husband and my parents and my parents don’t speak to me in Italian at home. They speak English, so there’s also that. They’re going to have to work harder to each my kids.”
“My grandparents barely spoke any other language, so I was forced. Even if my Italian might have been broken, the communication was there and I was able to communicate with them.”
Just Like Home is a series that discovers the restaurants and places Montrealers from all walks of life go to have a little, nostalgic taste of their home countries.