As pizza purists consistently remind us, true Neapolitan pies are exercises in elegant minimalism: four or five ingredients (dough, tomatoes, cheese, olive oil, basil) assembled by hand and baked in a traditional oven, then served piping hot and as close to paper thin as possible.
A new pizza restaurant in Toronto, General Assembly, has been crafted with similarly delicious restraint. Created by locally based Commute Design for founder Ali Khan Lalani, its industrial-chic look is streamlined and smart, reflecting (and facilitating) the business’s fast-paced, cashless operations. Yet it’s also rich in texture and feel, boasting judicious hits of colour and a deliberate staginess.
“Theatre is a big element in this restaurant,” Lalani says of the largely open space, which covers 3,500 square feet on the ground floor of a heritage building in the city’s Fashion District and seats up to 75, including more than a dozen in a semi-private room. “Everything is on stage.”
That is obvious as soon as diners walk into the restaurant. Directly across from the main entrance is a glass-encased dough room, where General Assembly’s naturally leavened dough is made on site and in full view of anyone who wants to watch. “We wanted to hit you with the dough room when you first walk in,” says Lalani. “We don’t want to tell you [about the food]; we want to show you.”
That sense of unfettered display extends into the dining area, a long, wide room featuring a quartz-topped service counter and bar on one side and a long white banquette paired with bright yellow chairs on the other. The base of the bar is clad with laser-cut aluminum in a powder-coated teal finish. The colour is repeated elsewhere in the restaurant, punctuating elements such as shelving and exposed piping.
Down the centre of the dining room, a blond-wood communal table outfitted with stools and benches stretches toward an open kitchen. The architectural stars here are the massive hand-built white pizza ovens sourced from a third-generation maker family in Naples. (Also contributing to the show are chef Cale Elliott-Armstrong and his team, who craft the restaurant’s signature 10-inch pizzas for everyone present to see.)
On the other side of the kitchen is a distinct 400-square-foot pick-up and delivery area, purpose-built to handle those services efficiently and equipped with its own dedicated entrance.
According to Lalani, the restaurant took about a year to design and retrofit (the space had previously housed a furrier). He met with Sara Parisotto and Hamid Samad of Commute in September 2016, charging them to execute a restaurant that would combine music, food, design and service in as “fluid” a manner as its heritage setting (with its exposed brickwork and terrazzo floors, both untouched and on display) allowed.
The result – as streamlined as a well-oiled machine and as unfussy as a classic margherita – performs both subtly and well.