By Alida Petrella
My mother loves to see her family enjoy a meal. Every day when I was growing up, she would make food from scratch; we always had fresh-baked bread, veggies from the garden and homemade tomato sauce and pizza. Meals after church on Sunday were truly a treat, with more than enough homemade pasta, pizza and roast on the table to feed the neighbourhood, it seemed. It was almost a sin how much food we had, but that’s the Italian way and we always managed to eat everything. Watching us devour every dish put a smile on my mother’s face.
People say I look like my mom—we have the same green eyes, blonde hair and smile. And like my mother, it puts a big smile on my face when people tell me they love my food. I learned a lot from her about preparing delicious meals from scratch, which works out well, considering I own a few Pizzaiolo Gourmet Pizza stores in Toronto.
And when I’m not behind the counter, tossing the toppings on fresh pizza dough, I’m also vice-president (VP) of operations and franchise development for Pizzaiolo. And did I mention my brother, Luigi Petrella, is its founder and CEO?
Prepping the Pizzaiolo brand
You could say I have pizza in my blood, but for that story, we have to go back two generations and another continent to when my nonno, Giuseppe, and nonna, Ida, opened a pizzeria in the 1940s in central Italy. As ‘pizzaioli’—which, by the way, means ‘pizza makers’—my grandparents honed their bread-making skills and passed them on to my parents, Anna and Antonio, who immigrated to Canada by the mid-1960s, bringing with them the old-fashioned way of making pizza.
Settling in Toronto, my parents opened their first restaurant—La Gondola—in 1967 in the north end of the city. To mark my brother Luigi’s birth three years later, they opened another pizzeria. When raising three kids and running a business proved to be too much, my parents sold the restaurant.
Once he was all grown up, Luigi founded Pizzaiolo in 2000, bringing nonno’s and nonna’s pizza-making secrets to the masses. He also taught them to me and I now pass them on to all our new franchisees when they ‘join our family,’ as I like to put it.
My parents sold their pizzeria before I was born, but I remember hearing stories about the long hours they put into the business and the rewards they got out of it; they were passionate about what they did. I guess I got my entrepreneurial skills from them. I always wanted to open my own business and do my own thing. I’m a bit of a go-getter and a people person, so owning a business that allows me to interact with others suits me just fine.
After graduating from high school in 1998, I got a job as a receptionist at a car dealership. It was supposed to be a summer gig before starting my first year studying business at Toronto’s York University, but things don’t always go as planned. On my second day of answering phones, I noticed a customer looking at a car and making the usual signals that they’d like to speak with a salesperson. Problem was, there weren’t any around, so I asked if they needed help and ended up selling them a car. Then I sold another one, and another one. It wasn’t long before the sales manager noticed and said, “Aren’t you the receptionist?” Needless to say, they soon made me a salesperson.
My time at that dealership taught me I was really good at sales and connecting with people. It also helped me realize I could be more successful if I worked for a bigger dealership, so I applied to Ready Honda in nearby Mississauga, Ont. People told me there was no way I would get the job because I didn’t have enough experience, I was very young and they had never hired a woman before. I brushed them off, though, and landed the job. I was barely out of my teens when I was named one of Honda’s top five female car sales associates in Ontario. You can imagine how, with the money I was making at such a young age, going back to school was not something I was interested in doing.