For 50 years, Camarra Pizzeria Ristorante, the iconic Italian pizzeria has been offering Toronto a delicious slice of Italy that is envied by many, and matched by none. A family restaurant in the true sense of the term, Camarra is still run by Elisa Camarra Valentini, whose family owned a supermarket and pastry shop in Abruzzo, Italy. In 1958, six months after Elisa and her family moved to Toronto, they opened Camarra - a Toronto favorite, winning the hearts of Toronto's Italian community, for t
heir fresh, homemade dishes.
Elisa, a pastry chef by trade, continues the family legacy of strong women in business. In the late fifties, there was only one other pizzeria in Toronto, so Camarra quickly made its mark on the local scene. Known for their delicious and authentic pizzas ($10.80-$33.50)-"If [the toppings are] not served on a pizza in Italy, you won't see it on our menu," claims daughter Emilia Valentini.
Elisa, otherwise known as "Mrs. V. ," continues to create beautiful Italian desserts ($6-$7) to complement the hearty main dishes-the Semifreddo In Coppa - a creamy mixture of pastry cream and whipped cream laced with orange liqueur and chocolate shavings - and Tiramisu are oft-requested delights.
The spirit of Abruzzo runs through the heart of this restaurant and it is one of the main characteristics that has generated such a loyal customer base. Generations of families have grown up with the restaurant, which is the highest compliment one can give in an industry where longevity is never guaranteed. Canadian ex-pats, who once frequented the restaurant with their families, make it a point to revisit Camarra when they return to Toronto. In fact, visiting customers often request dishes be prepared for them to take home so that they can enjoy a slice of Camarra's wherever they are be it Arizona, Vancouver, Ottawa or Italy.
One of Emilia's favourite stories about the restaurant, one of these very customers returned to Camarra, and requested four half-cooked pizzas to be wrapped in foil so that he could smuggle them back home across the border.
Though the menu at Camarra has always presented and honoured homemade dishes made in the spirit and style of a previous era, Camarra has always been ahead of its time. It was the first pizzeria to offer the party-size pizza, a familiar option in Italy, but not to Toronto in the 1960s-in fact, it was Emilia's uncle who came up with the now commonplace box design of a double side-vented corrugated paper box. Camarra has also offered en vogue ingredients well before it was hip to do so: items like focccacia, whole wheat doughs, roasted red peppers and filtered water. In addition, baked dishes instead of fried, have all been part of the Camarra shorthand before it was ours-a true sign of early adapters.
It is with this headstrong and forward-thinking approach that makes Camarra's immediate future shine with possibility. The next 50 years, which kicked off on September 26th and continuing until November 19, the restaurant will be hosting 50 nights to celebrate 50 years. During that period Camarra will be featuring a special menu and surprise entertainment. Portions of all proceeds from the 50 nights will go to the Villa Charities, MS Society, and the Canadian Diabetes Foundation which are organizations dear to the Camarra family.
However, the celebrations don't end there! Starting in January, on the 26th of every month, the restaurant will be hosting a special event, anything from a bowling tournament to renting out a movie theatre, which is sure to light up the neighbourhood in true Italian style. The year-long celebrations will culminate in a 1950s-style picnic next summer-it'll be the event of the season, and you know the food will be excellent.
On the business side, Camarra is entertaining a variety of options, including franchising, and developing products for the retail market. The family hasn't opted to expand beyond its current Dufferin Street location yet since they are currently able to service a good portion of the GTA from their own building. But who knows-the future is ripe with possibility. With devoted patrons from across the GTA, expansion potential is rich. And like any astute businesswoman, the Elisa is keenly aware of her neighbourhood's ever-changing population, and thus tastes and expectations. They embrace the opportunity to experiment and look to other cultures for innovative ideas, which will help them continue their delivery of quality, value, integrity and passion. It is a focused mantra that is simple yet powerful. From their dining table to yours, Camarra is a restaurant that is more than the bricks and mortar-it is an experience of family, Italy and Toronto all in one.