From an Albanian accent to becoming Calgary institutions
“At least a dozen.” I am sitting with Dominic (Dom) Tudda, and just asked how many restaurants he thinks his family and extended family have here in Calgary. He starts to list them off on his fingers, then trails off as he realizes he can’t count them all. Between his older brother Peter and older sisters Pina and Marianne, their in-laws, and children, it has become a veritable dynasty.
We’re sitting upstairs in Pulcinella in Kensington, a pizzeria certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, located in what is arguably the hub of the Tudda dynasty. The building has stayed in the family since 1974, but they’ve sold and bought back restaurants in this location several times, and even lived here.
The Tudda family pizza story started humbly in Kensington back in 1972, but the family story stretches back to Calabria in the tippy-”toe” of Italy, and even further back from there. Teresa and Giuseppe ( Joe) were born in adjacent villages, population less than 700 then, now only about 300, and met in school. Settled centuries previously by Albanians, the Albanian culture and language is still prevalent there – they both spoke it as their first tongue, and traditional dress was still worn when they were growing up. They can trace their ancestry back to at least their own great-grandparents, if not to the original Albanians settling this history-rich region.
Giuseppe came across to Canada in 1953, following his brother into construction, and eventually got a job working as a zoo keeper. He stayed in touch with his childhood sweetheart by post, then returned to woo her in 1958. They were married January 25th, 1959, and Joe returned to Canada to set things up, leaving a pregnant Teresa to follow alone by ship in July. Another couple, met by chance in Napoli, were asked to look after Teresa on the journey, and today they are aunt and uncle to that daughter Pina’s husband.
Teresa was always a generous hostess, hosting large gatherings, and eventually Joe suggested that since she was such a good cook why not open a restaurant? He had reached the glass ceiling at the Zoo and was looking for something with a better future. Their first location on 11th St and 14th Ave NW was already called Stromboli’s, after the Italian island, and they kept the name. Four tables, a single washroom, no basement, and no room in the kitchen for machinery. Mama Teresa ran it by herself when it opened in June 1972, since Joe still had a job. At first she offered pasta, ravioli, sandwiches and more but it was the pizza that really took off. She made everything by hand, from mixing the dough to grating the cheese, and the family had to pitch in and help (see family photo on page 24 Stromboli ad).
Now I am sitting with daughter Pina at the restaurant she runs with her husband, Villa Firenze, in Bridgeland. Pina remembers that at the first location she was 12 years old, having to work weekends when there were lineups until 3 or 4 in the morning. She would often fall asleep on flour sacks in the back room. A simple 10” Margharita pizza back then was a dollar, and they’d often make $700. With only four tables, later six, customers would sit on Coke tanks when they were full.
Pina recalls it was a lot of hard work, not much of a childhood, they couldn’t get involved in school activities because they had responsibilities. But they knew they were loved, and they’re still very tight to this day, to the point where maybe it’s a bit not healthy: she says, “We’re like children that haven’t quite grown up, which is great!”
The Tuddas lived in Inglewood until 1975, not far from the stock yards close to Joe’s former work at the Calgary Zoo, and there were a lot of Italian immigrants in the area. But when they opened the new location for Stromboli’s in Inglewood in September 1974, the family moved in above it, and there was no getting away from working, even if they wanted to: the stairs from home led through the kitchen…
It took about three months longer to open than Joe expected, and Pina recalls he was worried. New location, new neighbourhood, but it was busy and lined up right from the get go. There wasn’t much around at the time – the Plaza Theatre down the block and La Fleur across the street, but the new location was a hit. Seating for 120 and the whole family worked there. Later Dom points out that Pulcinella’s now has a staff of 50 in that same location for the same seating: back then they had five, plus the family. Everyone worked hard: at six years old Dom was not allowed to go out to play until he had folded 300- 400 pizza boxes, every day. Finally, in 1980 they bought a home up the hill in Kensington, and their former home over Stromboli’s was converted into a pub called Giuseppie’s, named for Joe. They no longer had to go through the kitchen to leave home, but that didn’t mean they’d left the kitchen…
A lawyer with an office across the street watched their success, and eventually talked Joe into selling Stromboli’s to him in July 1991. With money and time on their hands, Dom, Peter and father Joe bought the house that became Villa Firenze and opened on October 6th, 1991. From folding boxes Dom had graduated through dish washer to bussing to cooking, learning everything his mother could teach him. Now with his own money on the line, he became really interested in cooking, and learned as much as he could from his cousin Peter Staffa, who came to help out.
There was a tiny building in the parking lot of Villa Firenze: Teresa and Giuseppe wanted something of their very own, so she started Focaccia’s. It was an instant hit. She made doughnuts too, and couldn’t keep them in stock – they also sold them at the Millarville Market and always sold out, no matter how many they sent.
Initially there were just the three family members at the new location but the rest eventually came on board, and now they had the opposite problem: Villa Firenze only seated 50 plus a seasonal patio; it was too small for the whole family. So Dom sold his interest and started his own place with cousin Peter, San Dominico on 4th Street (now the location of LeVilla Chophouse).
Meanwhile, back in Kensington, the lawyer was having a hard go of it, after five years went bankrupt, reverting the restaurant to Joe in 1994. Now the family had two restaurants and too few to run them, so they talked Dom into coming back to help with Stromboli’s.
Once again it was a great success, and once again someone talked Joe into selling, so once again Stromboli’s changed hands in 2000. Pina and her husband Joe took over Villa Firenze in the meantime, and Dom decided he was going to get serious about pizza: he went to Italy do to the Master Chef program, and got certified as a Pizzaiolo. With the intent of bringing real Italian pizza and cuisine to Calgary, he studied with Michelin Star rated Chef Enzo Tournai and did everything he could to learn authentic Italian cuisine.
Meanwhile, back in Kensington, the new owner was having a hard go of it, got busted for 30 kilos of cocaine, and once again Stromboli’s reverted to the Tuddas. This time Dom took over, and renovated it using what he had learned in Italy to make authentic Napoli-style pizza. The oven cooks at 900°F and has seven layers precisely designed to hold and reflect the heat, including volcanic rock from Mount Vesuvius. Dom flew in his mentor from Italy to train the staff, and sourced his own flour and San Marzano tomatoes directly from Italy, becoming the first to import Double Zero flour to Canada in the process. Sadly, Giuseppe passed away in January 2006 before Pulcinella’s opened in April 2006.
Pina’s brother Peter had been there throughout: slicing pizza at the original location at 9, bar-tending the Kensington location at 14, running Giuseppe’s bar in 1988, opening Villa Firenze. Except for six months, he’s always been in the restaurant business. Even when he wasn’t directly involved, he was helping out at one of the family restaurants, or a cousin’s or friends. Finally he took over the Focaccia location in 2012. After a hiatus of 10 years, Stromboli’s is making pizza again, Roma style.
Peter is the family record keeper. He can rattle off all the dates of major events, when they opened, closed, visited Italy… The tiny Stromboli’s location has about five tables and a seasonal patio but is a gallery of family history. The walls are packed with family photos, including gruff Albanian Italian grandfathers, as well as nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and of course Giuseppe and Teresa.
Pina laughs as she says she now works for her son Tony, the third generation to own Villa Firenze. With three generations of Tuddas, it’s no surprise they have third generation customers returning to a restaurant that’s been flourishing for 46 years. She could retire, she says, but she would miss the relationships she’s built over the years with her customers too much. “I think my Dad would be proud of us. We’ve stayed together as a family. For my father to see that, I think he would be proud and smiling over the top of all of us.”
And as for Mama, the bedrock of the family, at 82 she stays busy in the kitchen, as she always has. Last week, she tells me, she came in and turned 100 lbs. of potatoes into gnocci. But, she confessed, her hands hurt too much to do dishes afterwards. “I would like to thank the people of Calgary for being so good to me. Our customers were beautiful. Some would come every day almost. They would clean my table and bring my dishes when I was by myself. They were so nice.”
As for future generations of the Tudda pizza dynasty? Well, Peter’s daughter Theresa was born here, but grew up in Calabria. She spoke Albanian at home and Italian in school, and took Spanish and English in University. Her next language will be Mandarin, she thinks. She came back to Canada to help her Dad open this latest Stromboli’s. “I’m part of it for now and I like it, but for the long term, I don’t know,” she says.
Considering that Pina is still baffled that her son Tony would give up a lucrative career in the oil patch to buy and run Villa Firenze, I suspect that restaurants are in the blood of this particular dynasty. Good luck with the Mandarin, Theresa, maybe there’s a Chinese pizza restaurant in the Tudda’s future!
— Fred Holliss