Dining Out: Roberto serves fine pizzas in a room filled with brotherly love
348 Preston St., 613-230-3111, robertopizzeria.ca
Open: Tuesday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., closed Sunday and Monday
Prices: pizzas from $12.75 to $18, gluten-free option $2.50 extra
Access: Steps to restaurant
I didn’t know Roberto Valente personally, but I’m still glad there is a pizzeria named after him.
In February, Valente died, far too soon. Just 46, the father of three young children succumbed to brain cancer. He was a star on Ottawa’s restaurant scene because for two decades, he and his older brother Richard had opened a succession of Fratelli restaurants from the Glebe to Kanata to New Edinburgh to Barrhaven to Westboro.
The Valente brothers, themselves the sons of Calabrian restaurateurs, planned to open a little pizzeria on Preston Street this year, but Roberto didn’t live to see it open in early June. The new place was to be called Cugini, meaning cousins in Italian, after the next generation of Valentes who would have the place to inherit. But after Roberto died, Richard renamed the restaurant in his memory.
“I’m going to call it Roberto, so I can still go visit Roberto every day,” Richard told the Citizen, soon after his brother died.
It’s a cosy, unaffected place of less than 30 seats that overtly celebrates Italian culture — think the soccer team photos on the walls — along with its namesake and his family. The back wall’s blown-up black-and-white photo shows young Roberto. Near the front, a smaller photo shows an older Roberto beside a wood-burning pizza oven.
The star on the pizzeria’s sign has five points — one for each of Roberto and Richard’s children.
Roberto’s children also lend their names to several pizzas on the concise menu of about a dozen pies. I’ve sampled more than half of them and am happy to write that they were pies that would have made Roberto proud.
Pizzas at Roberto are thin-crust creations that are well-designed, quickly made and quickly served. (Speaking of speed, I’ve found that three courses at Roberto usually clock in less than an hour.) They’ve generally emerged from the wood oven with nice charring. Just one, during an extra busy lunch service, landed on the table with one slightly burnt edge that was nothing critical.
The pies here are knife-and-fork fare, I think, although I did see other diners eating their pizzas with their hands, single slices folded over themselves or even a stack of two slices, toppings facing in.
Named for Roberto’s oldest son, Luca was a simple pepperoni pizza. But it was a real winner, thanks to tomato sauce with deep, true flavour.
Of Roberto’s five other tomato-sauced pizzas, I’ve tried and liked the Azzuri, which has artichoke, ham, black olive and mushrooms, and even more so the Juventino, with its charred roasted kale, cooked but still-crisp zucchini, and bright house-roasted red peppers.
The “white,” tomato-sauce-free pizzas were strongly appealing too, including the no-frills Clemente pizza of clams, garlic and mushrooms and the Pirlo pizza of mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula and parmigiano. By the way, we were able to have one pizza that was half-Clemente, half Pirlo and were told that any pizza, as long as it was all-white or all-red, could be split.
The Roberto pizza was aptly rich and packed a savoury, salty umami blast with its wild and porcini mushrooms, truffle aioli and parmigiano.
Only the Bria pizza (house-smoked salmon, capers, goat cheese, onions, mozzarella) fell a little short, and only because an excess of capers made it too salty.
While pizza is the name of the game at Roberto, there are a few salads and desserts. There was nothing wrong with the straightforward kale Caesar, dotted with good pancetta.
Tiramisu in a jar was heavy on the cream. The generous bowl of ice cream here was an interesting, dense mix of ricotta, black currant and basil.
The eatery, Richard Valente said, “was just going to be mine and Rob’s fun place to go.”
Now, Roberto is more than that. A purveyor of very good pizzas, it’s also a worthy tribute to a much-loved brother and widely respected man, and a little room with soul.