Getting Saucy in the Montreal Food Scene

November 01 2019

While born and raised in Montreal, Michele Forgione’s upbringing also instilled a passion for his family’s native Italian cuisine from a young age. As a result, he never stopped pursuing its’ creation. Then, one fateful day while working in the kitchen of Osteria Venti, Forgione met TV chef Stefano Faitia, who shared his passion and desire to start and build something new, while staying true to the principles of Italian cuisine. Within two years, they opened their first restaurant, Impasto, in Montreal’s Little Italy neighbourhood.

Today, alongside his business partner Stefano Faita, Forgione operates multiple restaurants – Impasto, Pizzeria GEMA, Chez Tousignant and Vesta – while also producing quality Italian products for retail. Forgione has also released a best-selling book, ‘Montréalissimo,’ and is currently the Food Editor for Panoram Italia.

We stopped by Impasto, where it all started, to get the inside scoop on his approach to business and balance, as well as what’s to come next.

With a lot of your inspiration to work as a professional chef coming from your grandfather, what made you want to cultivate culinary roots in Montreal?

I was born in Montreal and I think that there was a void of proper Italian cuisine growing up. You live and breathe Italian through family; for me, through my grandfather and my parents. Aside from that, back in those days (80's, 90's), there were a few good restaurants, but it wasn't what it is today. 

My belief was to make sure that we kept our roots intact but not go completely Italian-American like most Canadian restaurants. It had to be more like my travels in Italy. We used to go to Italy every year and regional Italian cuisine in Montreal was my thing, that's what started it all for me. 

How did your partnership with fellow co-owner Stefano Faita first come about?

Stefano is a celebrity chef and his dream was always to open up a restaurant, but he had never worked in one before. His mother has a really well-known cooking school called Mezzaluna and Montreal's best chefs all attended and/or taught classes there and have for the past 26 years. Since the age of 16, Stefano had assisted his mom and these chefs in these cooking classes, always learning with some of the best out there. 

In 2011, he had a TV show called ‘In the Kitchen’ on CBC. At that point, he came to a restaurant I was working at and told me his dream of opening up a restaurant and how he needed a chef. He said he'd heard about me and loved my food, so we later met up on set in Toronto. I stayed there for three days; we got to know each other, hit it off, set ourselves rules and boundaries and laid out what we each wanted to do. The rest is history. 

How do your concept and menu approaches differ yet remain true to your culinary style between Impasto, Pizzeria GEMA, Chez Tousignant and Vesta?

Impasto is more of a fine-dining Italian establishment. It's not regional Italian, per se. I'm trying really hard to work with local producers like an Italian restaurant or nonna would. A nonna would use what she has growing around her and at Impasto; we have the advantage of having the Jean Talon Market steps away. We're not going to necessarily use all-Italian ingredients but we're going to use them in the spirit of Italian cuisine. There will be three to four ingredients on the plate; seasonal, local, and let them shine. However, there are some ingredients that I just can't distance myself from, such as extra virgin olive oil. Aside from this, we make our own breads, pastas and cold cuts in-house. The breads and pastas are made from Quebec flour and the meats are local humane-certified pork. 

Pizzeria GEMA serves quick-bake and classic Neapolitan pizzas. Some of them are more creative but aside from that, just think Neapolitan-style.  

Chez Tousignant is your typical old school Canadian-Quebec snack bar with hot dogs, burgers, and sandwiches. The hot dogs and buns are made in-house. We grind the meats fresh every day. 

Lastly, my new restaurant, Vesta, is Italian-American inspired. While growing up in the '80s, we didn't have most of the ingredients you see today. There were thicker pizza dough styles, as Neapolitan hadn't been introduced to Canadians yet. We're taking that and doing full-on sourdough pizzas with no commercial yeast. They're thick but light and come in full-dressed, pepperoni, mushroom, peppers, blanc mozzarella and more. There are also simple pasta dishes like your typical spaghetti and meatballs. It’s an old school trattoria but done from scratch and done well. 

Besides being the chef owner of three popular Montreal restaurants, you’ve recently launched Stefano Sauce and a frozen pizza line. How do you maintain a balance between your ventures? 

From the retail aspect, we're currently in all of the Sobey's across Canada plus some independent stores; approximately 2000 stores overall. We've also just launched in Texas within 200 supermarkets called H-E-B and the products are selling really well there. Stefano and I will be visiting a bunch of them later this year. 

The balance is me doing the formulation of the recipes then the research and development at the company doing the tasting and seasoning adjustments, as it’s a large-scale production. Then the team makes up one big run to see if they all taste the same. If they do, my job is basically done at that point. The products then go through the nutritional, health, safety and quality checks to get approved. I then market it and show up to stores for any extra media promotion. To do so, we showcase how Stefano and I utilize the products from a chefs’ mind without making it complicated and make sure people see what we're all about. 

With the restaurants, we delegate a lot and I'm present every day but I'm not physically cooking daily like I used to be. I'm 42 now and from the age of 17 until 37, that's all I ever did. In 2014, when we opened GEMA, Stefano and I realized I had to get off the line because he had a vision and wanted to grow the company, knowing we had something special. He said, "I need your brain, menus and food costs. We've got to build this little empire." We then hired the right staff, trained them, empowered them and they do a great job.

Any tips for chefs looking to expand into different areas of food service?

My advice would be, try not to put all your eggs in one basket. If you're opening up a restaurant, do it slowly. You don't need all of the equipment in the world at once. Keep your costs low and make sure that your rent will not kill from the beginning. 

Also, make sure you see a lawyer; spend the $5K with a good lawyer to ensure you have at least three terms of five years that will come with no surprises. You don't want someone seeing you're doing phenomenally well and deciding they want an extra piece in your second or third year. So be sure to use your extra money from the get-go to get all of your legal items in order and to make sure your investment and best interests are protected. 

What role do spices and seasonings play in enhancing your dishes?

In our world of Italian cuisine, we don't usually use a lot of spices, aside from when we make desserts. For desserts, we use ingredients like cinnamon and cloves. For Italian savoury items, we use basil, parsley and a lot more herbs instead. 

Not using a crazy amount of spices is why, for example, my Cacio e Pepe is just four ingredients, the fourth being the only spice, Club House Black Pepper. This dish comes from Rome and is iconic. Everybody is doing this dish worldwide with different spins on it and it's really cool to see. For mine, I toast the pepper at the beginning before grinding it to let all of the essential oils come out and bloom.

As you grow in your own businesses, in what way do you hope to develop the Montreal food scene?

We'll continue to utilize as much as we can from the growers and farmers around the Montreal region and invest in local businesses and entrepreneurs. An ingredient doesn't always have to be from a US market. For example, if you're going to buy strawberries, be sure to use them in strawberry season and stay away from any less-fresh items that aren't even local when possible. Encourage local businesses and in doing so, you're stimulating your own market. The industry will get smaller and smaller as everyone gets to know each other in a "you scratch my back, I scratch yours" type of way.

What can we expect to see next from Michele Forgione in your restaurants?

One of my old chefs, Erin, has been cooking Iranian-Armenian style cuisine and Stefano and I will likely be investing in her business. We love investing in our staff, their dreams and their future restaurants. 

Aside from that, we'll be developing a lot more retail products. Now that the sauces and pizzas are doing well, there's all-natural panettone in the works that will be coming out in November plus soups, pestos, stocks and pastas.