“It’s like having dinner in the basement of a St. Leonard triplex. Not fancy. Nothing trendy. Just good authentic homemade Italian food.” That’s how Guido Grasso Jr. described the restaurant his mother and father founded just seven short years ago.
“After 49 years in the plumbing business my dad closed up shop and transformed the space into our pizza restaurant,” Guido Jr. recounted.
“It was a bit of a joke,” Pina Grasso, school teacher by day and helping out in the restaurant by night, said of her parent’s venture into the pizza business. “Let’s put a classic Italian restaurant in the middle of a diverse ethnic neighbourhood. We’ll be the only one in the area,” she laughed. “Things just happened from there. We sponsored a pizza-man from Italy, we opened up to a long lineup on the first night, and it’s been going well ever since,” Pina said.
The whole family is involved from the parents to the kids and even a granddaughter. “A lot of recipes are from my mother,” Pina told us. “Our customers love it, come back as regulars and many have become our friends.” she revealed. “My late brother-in-law’s last words were, ‘Run the pizzeria and I’ll protect you from above,”’ Pina confided in us. The Grasso family really does have a guardian angel.
We went on a quiet night, mid-week. By coincidence, my wife bumped into a colleague from work who wanted to taste something that reminded her of her late mother’s cuisine. She was so pleased that she has been coming back routinely since that first bite a few years ago.
The venue is unassuming and unpretentious, located across the street from duplexes in a quiet residential neighbourhood of New Bordeaux (Ahuntsic-Cartierville Borough). It is instantly comfortable, whether you’re dressed up or in jeans and a T-shirt. There are large prints of Italian landscape scenes, two large TV screens piping in Italian TV and paraphernalia from the Old Country.
It is somewhat ironic that our waiter Carlos hails from Portugal. Fluent in five languages including Italian, he could easily be mistaken as originating from Napoli himself. He has been there for six of the restaurant’s seven years.
Carlos started us off with very fresh bread, made on-site daily using Mrs. Grasso’s recipe. The aroma of olive oil and oregano was pleasingly evident and the spicy pepperoncini oil for drizzling made for a for a great start.
Along came the arugula and endive salad (my wife’s two favorite lettuces) and a plate of lightly-breaded calamari with marinara. The salad was devoured before you could say Grazie and the calamari was soft and juicy and could have been my whole meal. But that was just the beginning.
The arancini was next: a delicately rolled rice ball stuffed with cheese served over a tangy, fresh tomato sauce. It was followed by yet another tantalizing starter, the traditional veal meatball in the same hearty tomato sauce.
The meal could be hurried in an hour, but we preferred to dine leisurely for nearly three. We chatted with Pina and Guido Jr. who were informative as well as entertaining, the personable and experienced server Carlos, along with the senior Grassos. What’s more, the 1950s American Italian classic music from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to Tony Bennett and Perry Como was immensely enjoyable (I wish they had such a channel on Sirius XM).
Guido Jr. started his culinary venture working at the famous Joe’s Pizza in NYC while trying to make a name for himself in show biz. He moved on to L.A. where he perfected his pizza baking skills while looking for his lucky break as a comedian. After spending the bulk of the evening with him, except for the ten minutes when he did a pizza delivery, we too believed he ought to try his hand on stage with a microphone, and keep pizza flipping as Plan B.
Speaking of pizza, we asked Guido Jr. how he’d describe Sapori di Napoli’s pies. “Our pizzas are the flavours of Montreal,” he responded, admitting that his personal favourite is the Margherita. “We don’t try to recreate Italian pizzas because we’re not in Italy. We use flavours and recipes from the old country but give them a local flair.”
“Mom tells our chef what to make,” he continued. “Many customers have been coming back since the beginning. This place is like an extension of my parent’s living room,” Guido Jr. said, noting his parents live just a short walk away, where he grew up with his two sisters and brother.
“The neighbourhood has changed. It used to be French, Italian and Greek and is now a mishmash of ethnicities, but our old friends and neighbours still return for the traditional tastes.”
Out came my Veal Scallopini with artichokes and mushrooms in a cream sauce with Brandy Cognac. Delissimo! The plate was complete with perfectly grilled zucchini, broccoli, rapini, red and yellow peppers. My wife ordered the Bella Napoli pizza bianche adorned with generous, tangy mozzarella, baby tomatoes and basil. The crust was thin with crispy edges. She said it was “delicious.”
Guido Jr. said, “We’re not trying to be fashionable. There are no square dishes here. It’s like eating at your cousin’s wedding,” he chuckled, and so did we.
“My parents go to the market every morning. My mom is on the phone each day with her suppliers, involved in serious conversation with the butcher, like it’s the deal of the century,” he quipped.
“We were lucky to find a chef from the next town over from my parent’s native home in Italy,” Guido Jr. told us. “Nino D’otollo learned cooking in Italy while Mike Viscosi was schooled over here.”
The pizza menu is impressive with over 20 choices. There are the ‘classics’ like All-Dressed and Pepperoni. Tomato-based pizzas are called pizze rosse, while tomato-free pizzas are called pizze bianche and both types are listed separately. The ‘rosse’ includes the Margherita with tomato sauce, mozzarella, fiore di latte, fresh basil and olive oil and the Diavola with tomato sauce, mozzarella and spicy salami. The ‘bianche’ includes the Vegetariana and the Quattro Fromaggi along with offerings of Italian sausage, bocconcini cheese, arugula, cherry tomatoes and more.
There are plenty of interesting home-made pasta dishes, the traditional meat and fish plates, salads, soup and, of course, the must-have antipasto, all running between $8-$30.
We concluded our meal with an outstanding and unique cheesecake: light and creamy with pineapple inside and coated with strawberries, ladyfingers and graham crust. It was a sweet ending to a terrific meal.
Carlos then surprised us with a hefty serving of Zeppole, an Italian style of donut with Nutella dip. I recommend sharing it with the table over espressos. After the cheesecake we could only eat a bite or two (or three) and brought the rest home.
There’s a nice wine selection to choose from and two lovely terrasses for summertime outdoor dining. Sapori di Napoli is open Tuesday to Friday from 11AM-10PM, Saturday and Sunday (make reservations) from 5PM to 11PM and closed Mondays. Take out is available and Guido Jr. and his dad even do deliveries!
We were really pleased with our evening of pizza, pasta and great company with the Grasso famiglia. You will be too.
Located at 1465 Dudemaine Street (Montreal, QC H3M 1P9), Sapori di Napoli is about five minutes north of the Marché Central. Call 514-335-1465 for reservations or delivery and visit them online at saporidinapoli.ca and on Facebook.