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    Categories: Our People

Pizza paisanos

??? – St. Albert's Justin Lussier

It’s practically as monumental as re-inventing the wheel. OK, maybe not that huge – but improving on pizza? Messing with the tried-and-true way we all know and love it – pan, deep dish, thin crust, thick crust, etc?

Yes, it has happened and, just as improbably, it’s been done by three of our own – the St. Albert-raised creators of Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria, an increasingly popular restaurant chain featuring pizza done the old country way – thin, fresh and fast.

Growing up in St. Albert, going to school at Lorne Akins and Paul Kane and in school or community football and hockey together, entrepreneurs Christian Bullock, Jason Allard and Justin Lussier had already been lifelong friends who figured they’d go into business together someday. “We thought it’d be a bar,” said Bullock, who had already found success launching The Heights Tap House in St. Albert and The Canadian Brewhouse and Wok Box in Edmonton, all while still in his 20s. “We were looking to bring something exciting and new to the market.”

As luck would have it, Lussier was on a trip to Southern Italy in 2005, where he discovered an old-world secret: Neapolitan pizza, with its credit-card thin, chewy but crunchy crust and simple, high-quality toppings like fresh olive oil, Campania tomatoes and the freshest mozzarella cheese and basil. “It’s amazing pizza, and we found there was almost no one in North America making it. Now it’s revolutionizing what pizza is – fresh, gourmet quality but quick and casual too,” Bullock said.

“We wanted to reintroduce the sit-down pizzeria to everyone – where suits rub shoulders with construction workers, families and people on dates,” said Allard, whose restaurants import top-quality Italian tomatoes, olive oil, flour and even coffee. Fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese is sourced here in Alberta. “Consumers care about what they’re eating, where the ingredients are from, so this revolution of speed, freshness and quality appeals to everyone.”

Famoso has been a leader on the continent in bringing Neapolitan-style pizza into the mainstream, with its specialty 900-degree Forno oven baking pizzas in precisely 90 seconds – uniquely thin and crispy, with blistered bits of dough and award-winning topping combinations.

“Hands down, the top seller is the original, classic Margherita – tomatoes, cheese, olive oil and basil,” said Famoso St. Albert general manager/owner Adam Carmichael, also a friend of the founding trio and another Paul Kane grad. “But the fan favourite is the Cavoletti pizza, with Brussel sprouts, prosciutto, Gorgonzola, dates, walnuts and honey. It sounds crazy, but once people try it, they love it.”

While the company enjoys steady growth in urban markets, neighbourhoods – even the Fort McMurray airport – the founders agree sustainable success is what they’re after. The trio all now live in the Vancouver area, working to expand their brand in that province. Wherever they go, the focus remains on each local community, with customer service and personal connections a priority.

“We’re always looking for ways to give back – first locally, then nationally,” Bullock said, pointing to fundraisers for the Japanese tsunami and, this past Christmas, the MealShare program which provides meals to local homeless shelters.

Carmichael said the passion the guys have for the brand, and their dedication to community is what impresses him most.

“We all know and like each other, and that translates to the local restaurant – it’s a friendly, positive atmosphere, and we’re having great response from customers.” In less than two years of operation, the Famoso St. Albert team has made donations or participated in local silent auctions, golf tournaments, trade shows and the Amplify Youth Festival. Most recently, Famoso donated a $10 gift certificate for each $10 ticket sold to Richard S. Fowler Jr. High’s fall musical production of Hairspray.

“The sponsorship helped the school double their usual ticket sales, and for us, it brought in new customers – people were grateful for our support of the school. That interaction with our community is very important to us – we see it as a real opportunity,” he said.

“Of course we want to grow the company – the fast-casual model – but we don’t want to forget our values and where we came from,” added Bullock.

Q and A with Christian Bullock, co-founder of Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria

Q: What’s your favourite pizza?
A: I used to like North American-style, pepperoni and mushroom or ham and pineapple. But now it’s Famoso’s Margherita – cheese, tomatoes, olive oil and basil. Simple and fresh. That’s the number one pizza with my kids too, but my wife likes the Cavoletti – people call it the Brussel sprout pizza.
Q: Do you take vacations? Where do you go?
A: I love to work, and working with the right people creates a good culture, like already being on a holiday. But I try to spend time with my family in Mexico each year – just us, just relaxing.
Q: What music do you listen to?
A: I like Jimmy Buffet, Waylon Jennings and Neil Diamond – all sorts.
Q: Your pet peeve?
A: Not having enough time to get stuff done.
Q: What do you miss about home?
A: I love prairie people – I’m Albertan, through and through. There’s a great sense of community in St. Albert. I don’t miss the minus 30 weather, but I miss the good people.

DID YOU KNOW?

• Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria is listed #39 in the 26th annual Profit 500 Ranking of Canada’s fastest growing companies.
• Famoso originated right here in Alberta – the flagship store, opened on Jasper Ave. in 2007 – but now there are some 25 franchised restaurants from Toronto to Victoria. Ten more are in the works, with openings set for Lethbridge and soon in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Lucy Haines: Lucy Haines has been a freelancer writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2012. She writes features on travel, food, seniors, homes and gardens.