by Kala Noel

    Brian Vallis – A Pizza Affair

    As I enter Piatto Pizzeria, the tantalizing aroma of the wood oven pizza floods my senses. The decor is simple — pictures of fresh and colorful pizzas on the menu and Neapolitan scenery on the walls. The atmosphere is friendly and familiar, yet electric. I watch the Pizzaiolo’s hand toss the dough and I am eagerly awaiting my first bite of authentic Neapolitan Pizza. Combining rich Italian flavors, fresh ingredients, and the added flare of Naples, it is truly an artisanal dining experience. I take a peak at the dessert menu – Torta Italiano al Cioccolato (rich, creamy, dark chocolate flourless cake)…I dare you to try it…

    Brian Vallis was born in a small town in Ontario. After high school, he continued his education at Mount Allison University where he met the love of his life and did not think twice before following her home to St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. This city he now calls home is where he has mastered the art of a superior dining experience with his passion for food and his vision and execution of his restaurant, Piatto Pizzeria. Brian combines quality traditional authentic Neapolitan pizza with upscale wine at a reasonable price, and a fabulous coffee to complete your meal.

    A chartered accountant by profession, Brian first worked in the finance industry as an accountant and an insolvency specialist before moving his family to France in 1990, to enjoy a different pace of life. While in France, Brian enjoyed sitting in French cafes, people watching, and the art of the authentic French coffee made from hand-pulled espresso machines. He later moved to London, England, where he took pleasure in the local pub culture. Before returning home, he travelled throughout Italy and experienced the liveliness of the Italian Pizzerias of Naples. He says at that point he knew why he wanted to create Piatto but had to first think about what he wanted it to be.

    Brian felt his experiences in France, England and Italy, could merge to create a place that could be a local gathering spot with a sense of community to mimic the British pubs, a place to see and be seen, like the French cafes, and finally, a place that had the electricity of an Italian pizzeria. He wanted all ages to be able to come
    and experience the atmosphere and the food.

    His vision came to life with support from his family and his mentor, Stephen Centner. Before moving to France, Brian made a connection with the Toronto restaurant owner through a villa advertisement in the Globe & Mail. After years of friendship, Stephen encouraged Brian to establish his own restaurant instead of becoming a franchise owner. He put Brian through his own management training program for two weeks. Brian recalls Stephen saying, “We aren’t friends anymore, you are working for me.” He laughed, “It proved to be hard — he was brutal!” Brian claims that a key concept he took from the experience was that he observed Stephen’s team doing things right and doing the right things, which would later become one of the mainstays of Brian’s philosophy and approach to Piatto.

    In 2010, Piatto Pizzeria launched its first location on Duckworth Street in St. John’s, with the company of a full house. With occupied seats every night, Brian is gracious and humble. He does not consider himself successful. He is working long and hard to develop a business that will be sustainable in an industry where longevity in business is rare. When he came up with the idea of opening his own restaurant, even “without having any training in cuisine and as a shot in left field,” his happiest moment came when his eldest daughter Kate exclaimed “I love it – I’m in!” After they decided to expand to Halifax, Nova Scotia, his middle child, daughter Jay, said, “If you’re expanding then I want to help you.” His youngest, son John, joined the business for over a year and worked in the dish pit, as a prep cook, cook, Pizzaiolo, server and manager before moving back to Shanghai to pursue another passion. Brian’s wife, Janine, contributes her time daily to the business and it really is a family culinary affair. After spending much of his financial career travelling, Brian says the most rewarding aspect of the pizza life is working with his family. He laughs, “It isn’t always smooth, but that’s my greatest joy: working with them every single day.”

    Blending tradition with modernity, Piatto has kept true to the 200- year-old authentic Neapolitan pizza recipe and wood oven design, while meeting the demands of the modern consumer. Piatto uses the ‘q-less’ text-alert table technology system and an iPad ordering point of sale system. Their processes and ingredients are regulated by the Italian governing association (VPN) to ensure an authentic experience that includes blending water of an exact temperature with the rare type of flour used, specific types of wood in the pizza oven, and even certain types of tomatoes as they can only use San Marzano tomatoes grown in the volcanic ash of Mount Vesuvius. He states, “Our business is unbelievably steeped in tradition and history, but when I look at the way we are trying to run Piatto, we want to be at the front end of technology as much as we can to deliver a better customer experience.”

    Five years after opening the first Piatto Pizzeria, there are now five locations throughout Atlantic Canada and the Maritime provinces. Brian credits this expansion to the people working with him, his ‘Piatto Family’. Inspired by his training experience at Stephen Centner’s restaurant, he asks only three things from his team: “Do the right thing, do things right, and do your very best every single day.” Brian’s motto guides him and his team through the many challenges faced in the restaurant industry. He says that they also encourage a culture that allows growth, “We nurture and culture these people with the passion and interest and give them the economic opportunity to grow and the financial training and resources to carry this on, so they can create a great lifestyle for themselves, their family, and our community.”

    Is there another expansion in their future? With a sparkle in his eye and a hint of ambition in his tone, Brian admits that they have been looking for new possibilities outside of Atlantic Canada, “I will still be on the bus for a while, but may eventually move from the driver’s seat to the back.” Until then, with the support of his ‘Piatto Family’ they will continue to build strength in their management team and identify new partners and locations. Keep an eye out – Piatto Pizzeria may be coming to you soon!

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