It might seem odd to hear Jenna Clarke say she decided to open a pizza joint in Orillia because there was a “gap” in the market.
The number of pizza places in town might be rivalled only by the number of Tim Hortons shops.
But, Clarke was right. A piece of the pie was missing.
There are plenty of choose-your-own-adventure options, mostly chain operations, where you can pile on the ingredients to your stomach’s eventual discontent, and the crust is often an afterthought.
That is not the case at Rustica Pizza Vino.
Clarke opened the restaurant, at 132 Mississaga St. E., in August 2016. The goal was to create tasty food using “simple, traditional, high-quality ingredients.”
“I’m not a pizza snob,” she said, pointing out she sometimes eats pizza from other places in town, “but this is traditional Neapolitan pizza.”
That’s the gap she identified and filled.
After going to school to study an unrelated discipline, Clarke travelled for a few years. While her family has been involved in the restaurant business all her life, it was during her travels that she gained newfound appreciation for certain styles of cuisine — Neapolitan pizza among them.
So, when she decided to open a restaurant in town, she was determined to do it right. Rustica is home to Orillia’s first, and believed to be only, commercial wood-fired pizza oven. It is something to behold.
Those in the dining room can watch as the pies are slid into the large oven with a volcanic stone base. Before they know it — usually after 90 seconds at 900 degrees Fahrenheit — it’s time to eat.
The menu has enough options. Not too many. Most include a San Marzano tomato-based sauce, subtly bolstered by basil, olive oil and salt, and fior di latte — a mozzarella-like cheese.
For those who appreciate a good crust, the Neapolitan style can’t be beat. Rustica uses Caputo’s finely milled 00 flour, mixed with water, yeast and kosher salt. Simple as that, and the result is a delicate dough in the centre and a chewy/crispy bite on the outside.
Rustica didn’t master this by accident. Clarke knew she needed someone’s expertise to set her staff up for success.
A Naples-born consultant was hired to provide guidance and training before and after the restaurant opened. One of the people he trained was Payten Deshane, who is still the head pizza chef.
While known particularly for pizza, Rustica offers much more, from pasta and seafood to salads and a mean menu of apps, often cooked up by head chef Kevin Laporte.
“He has definitely elevated what’s coming out of back of house,” Clarke said.
Whether it’s eggplant parm or mushroom risotto, the idea is not to offer a fine-dining experience. Rather, it’s “sophisticated but casual,” according to Clarke.
Like many independently owned restaurants in town, Rustica sees value in supporting the community as well as local growers.
In the past couple of years, more of an emphasis has been put on working with local producers including Dragon Acres and Quaker Oaks farms.
Staying with that local focus, Rustica’s menu includes the Sunshine City pizza, featuring local apples, Orillia Honey, pancetta, arugula and double-smoked aged cheddar. It first appeared as a temporary, seasonal offering for Flavours of Lake Country, but it stuck. Good thing, too, as $1 from every Sunshine City pizza sold goes toward local food banks.
“The food banks do a fantastic job, and it’s fitting when a restaurant can help address food insecurity,” Clarke said. “We’re lucky to live in a city that’s so community minded.”
Having a staff that is like family helps Clarke achieve her mission of providing quality food and service while being able to contribute to the community.
“I have the best staff ever. They’re loyal and they show up with a great attitude every day,” she said, adding many have been there since Day 1. “It wouldn’t be what it is without the people who have been with me the whole time.”
We haven’t even touched on the drinks menu, but it includes an impressive array of wine and cocktails. See for yourself (when you’re able to dine in again), and take a seat on one of the prettiest patios in town when warmer weather returns. It takes the Rustica experience to the next level.
The good stuff
Most popular: pepperoni pizza, Sunshine City pizza, smocchi gnocchi
Jenna Clarke’s favourite: eggplant ricotta pizza
My favourite: cacciatore pizza, with a side of chili oil
Nathan Taylor’s local food and drink column appears every other Saturday.