Three summers ago, my exceedingly creative sister Sarah Jane decided to open a wood-fired artisan pizzeria as a summer project. She qualified for a provincial summer student business grant and start renovating a space in the small touristy town where my parents live. For someone who had never even worked in the restaurant industry, it took a while to research how things work, and – most importantly – how to build a wood-fired pizza oven! With my father’s ingenuity, they figured it out and “Pizza on Earth” opened by July.
To say her pizzeria was a smashing success is an understatement. The fact that she has people lining up for an hour to get her pizzas, that she’s been invited to demonstrate her skill at food conferences, that a top-notch caterer told her he’d finally found a ‘true artist’, that she got a job working as a head pizza maker at a high-end Italian restaurant in Toronto, that she’s had articles written about her in multiple newspapers and been highlighted as a summer grant success story, that she’s paid off most of her school debt in 1.5 seasons, that she single-handedly made 3000 pizzas in eight weeks, not to mention that people keep coming back again and again, is enough proof that her pizzeria has been one of the town’s best entrepreneurial ideas in years. Last summer, a foodie friend of ours ran the business and continued to maintain the fabulous reputation that “Pizza on Earth” established in its first year. You can even see a video of her making pizza here.
Of course, I’m biased; Sarah Jane is my little sister — the one who, when we shared a room as kids, would never get out of bed first, and it drove me crazy — and I’m fiercely proud of how well she’s done. Her work ethic puts me to shame some days! I’m mostly impressed, though, at how she had an idea, created a plan, took the financial risks, and ran with it, only to succeed marvellously. I think we could all take a lesson from her about pursuing dreams. Last weekend I was very excited to help her out for a few hours. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to work inside a real pizzeria, let me take you on a little tour…
The oven’s name is Vesuvius — fitting, isn’t it? Made of 12-inch-thick medium-duty fire brick, a ceramic insulating blanket, and covered with stucco, it reaches Sarah Jane’s ideal pizza temperature of 680 degrees Fahrenheit, which cooks the pizzas in 2-3 minutes. After being closed up all night, the oven is still around 400 F when she opens it up at 11 o’clock the next morning.
It takes tremendous skill to manipulate the pizza peel and I’ve learned to respect all who possess the skill. If the dough catches even slightly, it won’t slide easily and can result in total destruction of the uncooked pizza. Sarah Jane wields it like a true expert, flinging rice flour, tossing dough, and spinning rounds in some sort of mesmerizing pizza dance.
Dealing with clients is by far the greatest challenge. Last weekend brought an elderly gentleman who asked for a glass of water at peak time. Sarah grabbed him one and he said it wasn’t full enough, despite being three-quarters full. She filled it up to the brim, and he refused it again, saying he wanted ice. There was no ice; he was furious, drank it, stormed off. Another woman asked for no basil on her pizza, because “so much green” would scare her kids from eating the pizza. There are the snooty clients who won’t make eye contact or look up from their phones while ordering. There are those who get offended by the long wait times and expect preferential treatment. Sarah Jane’s stories are enough to make me reassess my own behaviour as a client.
All in all, it’s a wonderful place that makes, seriously, the greatest pizza I’ve ever tasted — dare I say better than the pizza I’ve tried in Naples, birthplace of pizza?! Perhaps. Try it yourself and see.