Laughing while noting he’s not complaining, Dom Morra remembers the opening of Via Tevere in 2012 as an endlessly crazy blur. The goal was to make sure the fledgling restaurant was getting everything right in its mission to bring authentic Neapolitan-style pizza to Vancouver. Along with his brother and partner Frank, Morra ended up not only handling the business side of things at the Victoria Drive space, but also standing in front of Via Tevere’s hulking wood-fired dome oven, making sure everything was perfect, from the char on the crust to the sauce ratio on the margheritas and prosciutto e funghis.
“We never imagined in our wildest dreams that it would be that busy that early on—even to this day we’re amazed,” Morra says in an interview with Straight. “From our first week we were owner/operators and also pizza makers. Me and my brother Frank looked at each other and said, ‘What did we just get ourselves into?’ I remember dropping dough at four in the morning because we ran out the night before. It was like, ‘We should just get sleeping bags and hang out here.’ It was a whirlwind, but it was a good problem to have.”
Eleven years later, there’s still a nightly lineup at Via Tevere, which was voted Best Pizzeria in this year’s Golden Plates. As has been the case since week one, you either show up early (the restaurant doesn’t take reservations) or accept that, sometimes, you have to wait for something good.
The draw is Neapolitan pizza, famous for its blistered, chewy crust, simple toppings (crushed San Marzano tomatoes, fresh basil, and mozzarella), and a complete inability to support its own weight once cut into. Because its ingredients will slide off otherwise, you either fold it or use a knife and fork to eat it—something admittedly foreign to those who’ve grown up with Pizza Hut and Little Caesar’s on these shores.
Although it’s nothing less than an obsession in its birthplace of Naples, Neapolitan pizza was, for reasons that escape the Morras, a little late arriving to the party in North America.
“We never really understood why it took so long for Neapolitan pizza to come to Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest, and really North America,” Morra continues. “It’s funny, one of the first customers we ever had—he was sitting at the pizza bar when me and Frank were still making pizzas—said to us ‘I don’t know what the heck this is, but it’s fricking delicious,’ which was hilarious. No one had heard of Neapolitan pizza. I have no idea why—maybe it was we’re just so ingrained with really cheesy, really heavy-topping pizzas that it wasn’t appealing to people until they actually got a taste of it.”
The Morra brothers learned to love authentic Neapolitan pizza during family trips to Italy.
“We were born and raised in East Van—we lived within 20 blocks of the Drive our entire upbringing—but my parents are from Naples,” he says. “We really took pride in our family heritage, our upbringing, and eating lots of awesome food in Naples when we’d go as a family as kids and teens. So opening a place like Via Tevere is something that we always wanted to do.”
That meant following rules. To get the stamp of authenticity by Italy’s Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, Neapolitan pizza has to be hand-kneaded and made with superfine-00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella. Then comes a fire-blasting in a wood-burning oven for 90 seconds at 485 degrees Celsius. Forget small, medium, and XL—Neapolitan pizzas are 30cm across, 3mm thick, and should be fragrant, soft, and elastic.
Even with set-in-stone guidelines, there was a learning curve at Via Tevere.
“We knew the flavour profile and the texture that we were after because we’d eaten it so much, being in Naples so frequently,” Morra recalls. “But it was trial and error. There are four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. But we had to get the recipe right, our proofing times, and how the pizza reacted to the high temperatures of the wood-fired oven. A lot of research went into tasting pizzas.”
The location of Via Tevere serves as a testimony to that research and getting things right. A decade ago, smart money would have suggested ever-busy Commercial Drive as a prime spot for a pizza joint. The Morra brothers instead set their sights on a vacant storefront in a residential area on Victoria Drive.
“It was an opportunity and a perfect storm where we had decided we wanted to hang our hats in a restaurant in East Van where we all lived,” Morra says. “We were in search of a place, and then this space happened to be for sale. It was so unique that it made sense.”
Today, Via Tevere is known for its homey rustic wood tables, circa-1935 Shelly’s 4X Bakery Products mural on the south-facing outside wall, and tank-size blue-tiled pizza oven, imported from Naples from a family that’s made them for decades.
When the Morra brothers first looked at the space it was being used to store plumbing supplies. Over the years, 1190 Victoria Drive has reportedly housed everything from a dry-goods grocer to the oddball decor-store Doctor Vigari.
“It seems like every year there’s a different little anecdote added to the history of the building,” Morra shares. “We kind of joke in-house that we should create a blog where we can add the bits and pieces of stories we get from customers. The Doctor Vigari story is that the guys of Doug and the Slugs used to hang out there. They messed around with some letters to create ‘Doctor Vigari’ and put it up on the signage out front. That’s where that came from—it’s ‘Victoria Dry Goods’ all gibbled up. I still have the extra letters somewhere in storage. When we renovated, we kept the Doctor Vigari letters and put them on some old boards that had to be removed, and it’s now sitting in the restaurant.”
The obvious question, given that Via Tevere is now a Vancouver institution, is why stop at one location?
That might make things crazy for a while, but the Morra brothers have been there before and survived—to the point where they, presumably, never did have to use their sleeping bags. So, in the works?
“Maybe,” Morra says with a laugh. “Is that letting the cat out of the bag?”
Via Tevere is located at 1190 Victoria Drive.