For a girl who doesn’t do restaurant reviews, I’ve blogged here twice about the immense talent of chef Michele Forgione, one of Montreal’s rising chefs. I first discovered him in the kitchen of Osteria Venti in Old Montreal, where his gnocchi and tiramisu drew hordes of local foodies.
A few months later, chef Forgione went from executive chef to part owner, as he and partner Stefano Faita launched Impasto, only a few doors down from famous hardware store Quincaillerie Dante in Little Italy. Once again, he weaved his magic, turning his new digs into a must-go address and rallying all the critics who had bemoaned Montreal’s lack of fine Italian restaurants.
Die-hard pizza fans, Michele and Stefano dreamt of owning their very own pizzeria, where Montrealers could enjoy great pizza on a par with Italy. In fact, in the early days at Impasto, the two partners had made room for an impressive pizza oven with pride of place in the open kitchen… where it proceeded to overheat and overcook clients and staff alike. With regret, the chefs had to part with their mega-oven and Forgione’s pizzas needed a full-fledged destination of their own. Gema (an acronym formed with the names of Michele and Stefano’s two children each: Giovanni, Emilia, Massimo and Anna) opened its door in 2014.
No doubt about it: After Japanese izakayas, Montreal seems on the verge of a pizzeria boom, with the launch of not only Gema but also No 900 Pizzeria napolitaine, both joining the ranks of visit-worthy Bottega and Magpie. So the recent Holidays saw me once more drag my favourite “victim”—AKA kiddo—to test this new talked-about address.
Let’s face it: I was bound to love Gema. I happen to know chef Forgione well, since he stars in my last recipe book La cuisine de mon enfance. I’d followed him on Twitter and Facebook where food lovers salivated at his pizza pictures, impatient to taste the pizza crust he took a year to perfect. Like friend chefs throughout the world, I would also stare at his swoon-inducing homemade cold cuts in the making. (Although I had my doubts about the squid mortadella, ahem, how’d that one turn out chef?)
From our discussions, I knew that chef Forgione wanted to open a no-fuss pizzeria like the ones back home, with a vaguely retro vibe that envelops you from the moment you step inside. And that’s exactly what I found on this first visit.
The lunchtime menu features a few pies with limited garnishes meant to shine and not overwhelm each other. In the evening, the selection widens and even includes a Pizza of the month from celebrities such as chef Martin Picard or Elena Faita. On the day we visited, kiddo and I couldn’t resist the Impasto, topped with homemade porchetta, hot cherry peppers, smoked caciocavallo and salsa verde. With a child at the table, I asked that they remove the peppers but provide this mom with hot sauce on the side. A little jar of hot peppers in oil landed on the table vito presto.
Basically, you can order the one-size-fits-all pizzas for yourself alone or share them with the table. A two- and three-course menu is also available should you wish to add a soup, salad or dessert. Wanting to taste all, I ordered the soup of the day, a fragrant homey Italian Wedding Soup with killer broth, and a fresh salad combining green shoots, roasted Brussels sprouts, nuts & all in a vibrant olive-oil dressing. Kiddo monopolized the soup (translation: I never got to taste those meatballs), but agreed to nibble 1-2 bites of salad without too much arm-twisting. An exploit.
As for the porchetta pizza, what can I say. It dares to dwell on the fat side of porchetta, instantly reminding me of that scene in Heat by Bill Buford where, at a hipster New York party, Mario Batali is shown walking from guest to guest, placing a paper thin slice of lardo on proferred tongues as if it were a holy wafer. Let it melt, let it melt, he orders, or words to that effect. Here, the dough has done all the work for us and imbibed the porky fat to perfection. The smokiness of the cheese, the zing of the salsa and the heat from the hot peppers balance against and with each other, providing quite the pig-out moment.
The best in basics approach applies to dessert. After the gelato tsunami, soft-serve ice cream has started to pop out in restos here and there, from Joe Beef on down; at Gema, you can enjoy frozen custard from local Laiterie Chagnon, garnished with toppings off the beaten track. I let the waitress decide for me and was served a scrumptious vanilla sundae topped with butterscotch sauce and Bacci crumble. Halfway through dessert, kiddo slumped on the banquette, his face smeared with chocolate sauce. I thought he might be too full, but he just wanted to relax and enjoy the surroundings. We ended up cuddling on the banquette for almost 30 minutes, until the resto was about to close in-between services. “Can we sleep here tonight?” he asked at one point. That pretty much sums it all.
6827 St-Dominique St, Montréal, Qc
514 419 4448