Junction restaurant gives pizza ancient, delicious makeover

It’s mid-afternoon on a Wednesday and Gino Benevenga has been up since 5 am prebaking 167 pinsas at his restaurant, Venga Cucina, in the Junction. He stacks the flatbreads the size of small cutting boards on cooling racks before they go into the fridge. When the restaurant opens at 5 pm for dinner, toppings and sauce will be added before they go into the oven again, this time until the dough is crisp and slightly charred.

You can call it pizza, but Benevenga insists it’s pinsa, which differs from the pie most people are used to in Toronto. The crust may resemble a focaccia, but when you pick up a square it’s noticeably lighter and holds its shape. It’s crispy on the outside like a regular thin crust, but inside it’s airy and slightly chewy. Two years ago Benevenga had never even heard of pinsa. Now he wants everyone to know about it.

“The dough remains for 96 hours in the winter — it adds more crunch and makes it lighter and easier to digest” is the line Benevenga will repeat to customers during dinner service. The pinsas bake at 320C for three to four minutes in the oven, depending on the toppings, giving Benevenga time emerge to from his station to talk to diners about the fermentation times and benefits of eating pinsa.

For a while, Benevenga had a Hawaiian option on the menu, due to customer demand, but he replaced that pineapple and ham combo with one he preferred: figs and prosciutto and a drizzle of balsamic. He also offers a more gimmicky $100 pie, featuring wild boar prosciutto, wagyu beef bresaola, black truffles and a rare parmigiano reggiano (thankfully, without gold flakes). “I wanted something that people would talk about,” he says. Since opening two years ago, he’s sold four of them.

On my recent visit during dinner service, I stuck with the more basic pinsas: the margherita topped with delicately crisp basil leaves; an aromatic cremini and shimeji mushroom pinsa with caramelized onions, truffle oil, stracciatella and pecorino cheeses (ask for a jar of the housemade chili oil on the side); and my favourite, the Spicy Gino topped with spicy sausage, nduja, sun-dried tomatoes and fior di latte. As Benevenga and Mary Defreitas, his wife and co-owner of Venga Cucina, tell me, you can finish a whole pinsa without wanting to take a nap afterwards, because it doesn’t feel so heavy.

Benevenga makes each pinsa by hand using dough that's been resting for 96 hours.

The pinsas may be a recent addition to the city’s pizza scene, but the restaurant (at 3076 Dundas St. W., just west of Keele St.), is a cozy, brick-walled mom-and-pop operation that feels like it’s been in the neighborhood for at least a decade. Maybe that’s because for Benevenga, who is two months short of turning 65, it’s a culmination of a decades-long culinary journey.

Benevenga was born in the Salerno province in southwestern Italy (the vamp of the boot, if you will). “I worked in the food industry since I was 16,” he says, “and the sauce I make is what my mom made: just tomatoes, vinegar and olive oil. We were part of the Mediterranean, so the food is very simple and tasty.”

He figured working as a cook would pay for his travels and so he did kitchen stints in other parts of Italy and England. In 1980, at 22, he joined a relative in Canada and found himself slinging pies and pastas in a string of Italian joints. He later worked at Pinocchio, a beloved Etobicoke trattoria that, in a 1980 Star review, dining critic Jim White called “wonderfully original” for adding a dash of Angostura bitters to its chicken parmigiana. It was also while working there that Benevenga met Defreitas through a friend who was a regular at the restaurant and thought they’d hit it off.

The dough is made from a blend of finely ground 00-wheat flour and soy and rice flours.

In 2016, three years after Pinocchio closed, Benevenga opened his own place, something of a departure from his Italian roots: the Junction Local, an American-style smoked meat spot. The place closed in 2020 as indoor dining shut down.

“It was a bad time, but this gave me the push to change. With an Italian name, it’s harder to sell smoked meat,” he says. “(Pinsas) come so much easier and natural to me because I know the flavours. I have the knowledge of Italian cooking.”

In the early days of the pandemic, restaurants were all about pivoting to takeout, so, for Benevenga, moving on to pizza made sense. But the city was not short on regional pizzas: Pizzeria Libretto introduced certified Neapolitan pizza more than a decade ago, Leslieville’s Descendant brought Detroit-style pies, and we’ve also seen pizzas inspired by cuisines of the Levant, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Jamaica and the Philippines.

Searching online, Benevenga learned about pinsa, derived from the Latin word “pinsere,” which describes the spreading, pressing motion used to stretch the dough. The dough has a higher water content than that of typical pizza, requiring more resting time to allow the flour to absorb the liquid and form the bubbles necessary for its structure. Some recipes suggest a 24- to 72-hour rest, but Benevenga finds 96 hours ideal for maximum airiness.

Benevenga adds finishing touches to his pinsas fresh from the oven.

Pinsas date back to ancient Rome, but Benevenga’s version starts with Di Marco, an Italian food company that in 2001 began selling a modern blend for pinsa dough, combining finely ground 00-wheat flour with soy and rice flours. The company claims this results in a crust that’s easier to digest because it has a lower gluten content.

Benevenga took a pinsa-making class at the School of Italian Pizza (yes, it’s a thing) in North York and bought Di Marco’s pinsa flour blend. He submitted videos of himself making the flatbreads to the Originale Pinsa Romana Association, the body created by Di Marco in 2016 to enforce quality control worldwide by making restaurants adhere to its recipe (which requires buying its flour blend, naturally). The association approved his skills and added him to its global registry of pinsa-makers.

Out of 195 restaurants on its website, the only other Canadian entry is Joe’s Italian Kitchen in Almonte, Ont.

Despite being the city’s first certified pinsa place, Venga Cucina has a vibe that’s quieter than the hour-long lineups that accompanied the first certified Neapolitan places a decade ago. It feels like a spot you’d want to come back to rather than a one-and-done entry on a foodie bucket list. It’s a small operation where every pinsa is handmade by Benevenga.

As 5 pm nears and Benevenga prepares to open his doors for dinner, he hangs holiday decorations while Defreitas vacuums the dining room and brings out vases of fresh roses. A delivery of fresh pastas arrives from Petti Fine Foods across the street, and from the kitchen emerges Antonio Giaquinto, the 83-year-old former proprietor of Pinocchio — Benevenga’s old boss — who occasionally spends his retirement days helping out.

“Today I cleaned 50 pounds of onions. Now I’m a cleaner. I water the flowers in the summer,” Giaquinto says. “(Gino is) my best guy and he’s a nice person to begin with. I do this for no one else.”

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