Welcome to part two of our Pizza Week interview with the Di Lauri family as it celebrates the half century mark of Elio's on Bellechasse in La Petite-Patrie. Today, son Frank Di Lauri, who manages the day-to-day at the restaurant, talks about his parents and a childhood spent, for the most part, in a pizzeria.
You and your two sisters grew up at Elio's. What was that like?
We spent all our time there. It was more than just a restaurant to us. It was our playground, where we did our homework, our supper table. We slept there until someone brought us home. It was a matter of blood, sweat and tears for my parents. The restaurant was the fourth child in the family.
At times it becomes overwhelming. You can't prioritize enough. This year was one of the only years that I took a vacation. I had a little space in the schedule for a seven day holiday. By the fourth day my mind was already on Montreal. I knew I was there but I was wandering back to the restaurant.
Was that because you were anxious about the management of the restaurant in your absence?
No it's because I wanted to get back to the action! Being with the crowd, the customers. I missed the phone! I missed everything. That's what the restaurant business does to you. It's a beast you keep feeding but it's great. I have a bac in economics but I keep coming back to Elio's.
The restaurant's Facebook page contains some terrific anecdotes from longtime customers on the occasion of your 50th anniversary. Any favourites?
So many. A guy named Frank Denis, he was explaining that he worked for my father a long time, his daughters got baptized there, practically grew up at the restaurant. It's not only about the food, it's about the tradition.
Let me tell you about my father. Every year we would do a big réveillon on New Year's Eve and donate the money to area hospitals and the Cancer Society. No matter what the case he would charge $100 a head. He always charged that much, no matter what. Some of the food and wine was donated, but mostly not. He never wanted to charge more than $100, even as costs rose.
My father has been president of his church [Madonna della Difesa in Little Italy] for quite a few years. There was a rule that a president couldn't sit for more than two years. But they kept re-electing him. He said "You need fresh blood" but they always nominated him. Again and again.
He's always organized the food for fundraisers and so on. But my father - and a lot of people don't know this - let's say they sell sausage sandwiches at $5 a sandwich. You can easily buy the sausage from the butcher - it'll cost maybe 75 cents per sausage. But my dad buys the leg himself, grinds the meat and makes the sausage from scratch. He insists on doing it this way. Because more money goes to the church. He never talks about it. I don't even think the priests know. He won't show up to accept awards or gifts. He doesn't like attention.
Tell me about his Order of the Star of Italy.
Somebody nominated him for the honour. But you have to know something and I hope you include this: without my mom, my dad would never have created what he created. My mom is the soul of Elio's. My dad is the brains and the backbone. But my mom is the soul. Because whenever things went a little bad - my mom always had the right attitude. She gave the support that was needed. She's been there every day - it's impossible to get her to go home.
So your mother, Nina, comes in to work at the restaurant still.
Of course. She takes care of all the little things. Example - the parsley - you can be assured it's her that cut it, for the pizzas, the pastas, everything. Only she can cut the parsley. Nobody else can touch it. It has to be done in a particular way. The lasagna stuffing. There's nobody else that does it but her. She's three steps ahead of everyone else.
One day I came in, around 4 o'clock in the afternoon. I see her peeling the shrimps. I get across from her and we're talking. I start to help her. At a certain point she's talking away but instead of listening I was noticing her hands. Now in my mind I'm fast - the fastest in the world - but I couldn't keep up with her. By the time I cleaned and split one shrimp, she had done three. Unbelievable. I wasn't fast enough to keep up with my mom. This was 5, 6 years ago. She's in her seventies, keep in mind. I have too much pride to lose to my mom to try that again!
It comes down to the same thing when my father does the dough in the morning. He prepares the batch - even at his age, you better keep up because he's fast. Together they're a machine, my parents. There's no way you can keep them home. I tried. I tried to get them to consider relaxing a bit. But they kept coming back. So I gave up. People don't last long at Elio's because my parents are faster. Nobody's good enough. They're ingrained in their ways and their behaviour.
Your father has been at this since he was a boy.
He's been in this business since he was 8. He learned the pastry business in Italy as a kid. He didn't go to school or work the family farm. He wanted to learn a trade. You worked for no pay back then. Hopefully you were fed - but an apprenticeship was like school. Back then it was an honour to have someone teach you. In my father's town it was painting and masonry and ceramics. The rest were all in the military. I've been there [Elio De Lauri's home village of Candida, in the region of Campania] many times. Now by car it takes ten minutes to make the trip to Avellino, the town where he apprenticed. But back then you walked. It was close to 10 km.