Taking a brief respite from the Victoria's Secrets series of the past few days, Cornichon visits Victoria's newest pizzeria.
Prima Strada was born out of Cristen DeCarolis's frustration: the lack of decent, family-friendly pizza parlors in Victoria. She'd come from the Bay Area and her husband, Geoffrey Dallas, originally from a restaurant family back east, had a good job in hi-tech on Vancouver Island, but they missed the Big City's plethora of genuine pies. They built a backyard oven, but it wasn't enough: the concept of a neighborhood pizzeria became a passion.
Toe in the water: they made the rounds of North America's best-known pizza joints in California, Arizona, Chicago, New York, even Seattle (Via Tribunali, Tutta Bella, Serious Pie). They found a space in Cook Street Village that met their requirements; they hired a consultant to navigate the permit process. Motor tuned up, they built the oven, not to the (perhaps unreasonably) exacting VPN standards of the Neapolitan purists, but pretty damn authentic just the same. Ignition!
Caputo 00 flour was a must. So were San Marzano tomatoes, so was filtered water. But genuine mozzarella for the signature margherita pie? Importing by airfreight it from Italy would be prohibitve. Then they heard about Fairburn Farm, up-Island in the Cowichan Valley, the only dairy herd of water buffalo in Canada. Mozzarella is actually the most widely-sold cheese in north America, thanks to pizza toppings, though most of it seems to come in two flavors: plastic or chalk. An industrial, barely edible, food-like substance. Mozzarella di bufala, the real thing, comes from Campania, the region of Naples, where dairy herds of water buffalo are raised. Over 95 percent of the world's domesticated water buffalo are in Asia, and in India, where cows are sacred, water buffalo are the primary source of milk. The beasts have also been raised in Italy for centuries, most likely introduced by Arabs via Sicily or by returning Crusaders.
Now back to Duncan, the Cowichan Valley town where Darrell Archer imported the first herd of water buffalo into Canada in 2000...and promptly lost them to Government ineptitude. Archer persevered, and now has a herd of 40. He's also got guest rooms, a cooking school, and a chef, Mara Jernigan, who's also the president of Slow Food Canada.
Getting back to the buffalo: they're milked on Mondays, and the milk is made into mozzarella the following day in Courtenay, even further up-Island, by a Swiss cheese master at Natural Pastures Cheese. (His Comox Brie won gold at the world championship in 2008.) Prima Strada is the Island's largest customer for the mozzarella, and, before the week is out, it's melting on pizza in the handmade oven in Cook Street Village.
There's nothing self-conscious about Prima Strada. Half a dozen starters, three or four desserts, a dozen wines, four or five local beers on tap. Ten pies, from $11 to $16; additional toppings are a couple of bucks. (Che cosa? you can see the Italian purists' eyeballs rolling.) Extra buffalo mozzarella will set you back $3.50, by the way, and (seems to Cornichon) almost guarantees you disappointment. The whole point of mozzarella being its freshness, don't try to melt more than just a little...or your thin-crust pizza will get hopelessly soggy. On a salad, another story entirely.
Is everything perfect here? No, frankly: we think the tiramisù lacks espresso flavor. Other gripes: none. (What's amusing with any pizza parlor, by the way, is to read the comments of self-proclaimed pizza experts telling you why this or that--crust, topping, service--doesn't measure up to their wacky standards. Check out the whiners on Yelp and UrbanSpoon!)
There's already a mobile version of Prima Strada called Black Beauty, currently parked out back, and there's going to be a new store shortly in Victoria's working-waterfront Selkirk district, off Gorge. "It has a different feel than Fairfield, more industrial, but it's still pizza," Cristen says. "And it's big enough to do breakfast, lunch and special events." Vroom, vroom!