Mirko D’Agata is the talented executive chef of NO.900 pizzerias! Profile of one of the best pizzaioli in Montreal and a true lover of good food.
A childhood full of good Italian cuisine
Born in Turin, in northwestern Italy, Mirko has always been interested in food. His parents are both of Sicilian descent, and from an early age he was made aware of the importance of eating quality food. “It was my father who always cooked at home. He never served us prepared snacks or bought mayonnaise; everything was homemade! It was really important for him to feed us well and be mindful about the ingredients used,” explained Mirko.
At age 16, Mirko got his first job, which was his first experience as a pizza chef. “I had seen an ad for a pizza place called Pizza Point that was looking for a delivery person. However, I didn’t have a car, only a motorcycle, and it was less convenient to deliver. So the owner offered me to work in the kitchen and prepare the pizzas on weekends. It was my very first job and we were making a large volume of pizzas. I learned how to get organized, manage inventory, and plan my time; it was really my school!”
His first experiences in the kitchen
Mirko enjoyed cooking. He finished high school and decided to continue working in the kitchen, although he chose to leave Italy. Every summer, he explored a new country to work for the season. He went to Corsica, Switzerland, and Germany before returning to his native Turin. “Back in Italy, I was offered the chance to open my own pizzeria. I was 24 years old at the time. My partners and I worked very hard on the concept of the project, but in the end it fell through.”
In 2009, a new opportunity presented itself; to participate in the opening of a brand-new pizzeria in Bra, Italy—the city of the Slow Food movement. “I decided to go for it! It was an excellent experience. We started this pizzeria, called Cinema, doing everything from scratch. At Cinema, I had the opportunity to create my own menu; it was a first for me. I was lucky enough to work with local farmers and super-fresh ingredients sourced within a five-kilometer radius of the restaurant.”
An encounter that changed his life
It was while working at Cinema Pizzeria that he met David Zaccardi, who is the current chef at the excellent Bottega restaurant in Laval. “David was working at the Dulcis Vitis restaurant in Alba, very close to the pizzeria. He was in Italy because Catherine, his wife, was attending nutrition school in Pollenzo. He often came to eat at the restaurant and he and I talked a lot.”
As the two became friends, Mirko D’Agata left Bra’s Cinema pizzeria to work in another culinary field that he was passionate about: breadmaking. He got a job at Panetteria Gianfranco Fagniola, while David, on the other hand, had finished his one-year contract at Dulcis Vitis in Alba, and went on to land a two-week internship at the same bakery. It was there that this duo of excellent cooks developed a real complicity. “David suggested I move to Canada to work at Bottega. At the time, I was still hesitant about whether I wanted to work in pizza or bread, because I loved both. Finally, I chose pizza! I decided to sell all my furniture and move to Canada, even though I had never been before.”
His arrival in Canada
Following this big decision, Mirko set foot in Montreal for the first time in his life. Thanks to his friend David, he started working at Bottega Laval. At the same time, he joined the Arte & Farina pâtisserie project at Marché Saint-Jacques (now located on Ontario Street East) where he worked alongside the talented Sandro Carpené. It was here that he finally got his hands dirty and used his baking skills to create true Italian delights: panettones. “I deeply love the flavours. The work, the smell of the bakery; I love it. It’s really a job of passion that we do. We take the time to do things right, we choose the ingredients carefully, and we offer products that are well-made and truly authentic to Italy!”
Among his most memorable moments in the restaurant business, Mirko counts those spent at Bottega Laval. “For me, Bottega was one of the best restaurant experiences I’ve ever had. I spent four wonderful years there always wanting to go to work.” Indeed, his experience in one of the best Italian restaurants in Montreal was an opportunity for him to create without constraints. Responsible for the pizzas in the house, he was also in charge of the daily specials for which he had creative liberty. Enzo, the owner of Bottega, has also been a pivotal person for him, both professionally and personally. “He’s really like my dad here. I have a wonderful relationship with him. Enzo has really guided me through my goals and taught me how to achieve them,” he explains.
The beginnings of the NO.900 adventure
As soon as he arrived in Quebec, Mirko was able to demonstrate his talent for making authentic Italian pizzas at Bottega Laval. At Arte & Farina, the artisanal delights that he made and still makes also illustrate the passion and know-how that he has in this field. So it was no surprise when, in 2016, NO.900 pizzerias approached him to offer him the opportunity to embark on the growth of their chain.
“I left in 2016 from Bottega Laval. At the time, I would start work in the morning at 5:30 a.m. at Arte & Farina, and at 2 p.m. I would go to Bottega and work until late in the evening. I did this constantly, day after day. It took me six months to make the decision to leave Bottega for the project that was NO.900. I really liked the challenge that was thrown at me, to work in a chain in an artisanal way, it was unheard of!”
Mirko left his restaurant on Montreal’s North Shore to embark on a brand-new adventure: that of executive chef of NO.900 pizzerias. From the outset, what attracted the pizzaiolo to this position was the vision of Alexandre Brunet, co-president of operations for the chain. “I found that he was really thinking long-term. Alexandre truly wanted to bring value back to the profession of pizzaiolo and develop the quality of a pizza chain. Also, for me, working for franchises was a new thing. I wanted to make sure that we remained artisanal and that there was never a central kitchen,” explained Mirko. A big challenge in itself, given the rapid pace at which NO.900 pizzerias were expanding at the time, going from 4 to 19 in less than three years!
A chain that sets itself apart
Today, Mirko D’Agata plays a key role in what sets NO.900 pizzerias apart from other restaurant chains. Not only does he ensure that all kitchen teams produce recipes to the company’s high standards, but he is also responsible for sourcing the excellent products from which these restaurants make delicious Italian dishes. “I am in continuous training with the team to pass on my knowledge of Neapolitan pizzas in general. We show our pizzaioli how to knead the dough and how to cook it perfectly to make a good pizza. That’s the challenge with a chain; to replicate the same dish as closely as possible, every day, in every pizzeria.”
To ensure that he consistently serves excellent quality pizzas to NO.900 pizzerias’ customers, Mirko uses the privileged contacts he has developed over the years to source high-end products. “Being an artisanal chain, we are fortunate to be able to source a huge quantity of excellent products at a good price. Whenever I can, I buy Quebec products, like meat from Gaspor or Les Viandes Biologiques de Charlevoix. However, when I have to, I go and get products from Italy. Since we order a very large volume, we have access to top quality; I can choose my products at an affordable price. For example, we buy six containers of Italian tomatoes a year!”
In addition to his love for authentic Italian specialties, Mirko exemplifies his respect for Quebec through the dishes he creates. This means, among other things, having to adapt to the tastes of his clientele. “For me, it is important to adapt to the territory. I am aware that the flavours are slightly different from those in Italy. With Arte & Farina, we remain very authentic with our artisanal products, while at the NO.900 pizzerias, we cook with certain Quebec influences. I think that, since 2010, there is a new wave of Italian immigration coming to Canada. I think we’re seeing the result of that; there’s a kind of fusion, a mix of cultures that I really like.”
A corporate culture like no other
What makes Mirko D’Agata most proud of the unique company that is Pizzerias NO.900 is its visionary nature and the way it continually respects tradition. Not to mention the fact that he deeply hopes the profession of pizza making were truly recognized.
“I love that we’re a completely artisanal chain. Before, the people who made the pizzas were less professional; their job was seen as a side job. With me, a pizzaiolo is a cook, a chef. It’s really an art to make a good pizza! In a pizzeria, at the beginning, you don’t touch the dough; at the beginning, I didn’t even know how much yeast I had to put in the dough, because you weren’t allowed to touch it. Eventually you get into it, and you develop your own rules, your own way of doing things. And it doesn’t matter, because all that matters in the end is a good result.”
This recognition of the true profession of pizzaiolo is reflected in a rich corporate culture within NO.900 establishments. The chain organizes internal competitions, bringing together all its franchises, to determine which one has the best pizzaiolo. “Again this year, the NO.900 pizzerias organized a pre-selection of employees who would be sent to the big pizzaioli competitions in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. We had a lot of fun showing what NO.900 Pizzerias’ pizzaioli were capable of doing internationally!” At the 2019 edition of these two major competitions, the Montreal-based pizza chain was able to position itself as one of the best, thanks in part to Mirko’s second place finish in Las Vegas. Mirko and colleague Brian Vickers also tied for third place in the best Neapolitan pizza competition at the Caputo Cup!
“The corporate culture of NO.900 Pizzerias is very rich. It’s really a great initiative to have our employees participate in these competitions. I see all these incredible young people, 22 or 23 years old, who have become truly passionate about their work. Some of them spend their days off reading about the art of pizza and telling me about it when they come to work! I think it’s so beautiful.” Indeed, few restaurant chains are as passionate and committed to making their employees’ work shine; hats off to them!
Mirko is an absolutely inspiring, sensitive, and passionate man. His talent and attention to detail characterize him as the executive chef of NO.900 Pizzerias, as he passes on his knowledge and attention to quality to the pizzaioli of tomorrow.
Written by Sophie Monkman
Photography by Alison Slattery