Nadia Vergalito has a mind for business.
Ask and she’ll tell you she’s in her glory drafting a business plan and making it a reality.
“I like to get (a business) up and running, put things in place and move on to the next project,” she said. “I thrive on change.”
Still, there’s one business she keeps coming back to, and it’s family loyalty that compels her to return to run Roberto’s Pizza Passion on Facer Street.
The restaurant is a cornerstone of this north St. Catharines neighbourhood — as much an homage to the Vergalito family’s Italian roots as it is to Nadia’s father, Pasquale, and her brother, Roberto.
Its first incarnation was as Espresso Passion, Pasquale’s pet project café that Nadia inherited after the Vergalito patriarch passed away in 2008.
Across town at the time, Roberto was making a name for himself as The Pizza Dude, shelling out pies at a busy takeout pizzeria on Martindale Road. He sold the business after his father died, however, and took over the office work in the family business while Nadia became the face of Espresso Passion.
Anyone running a café knows it takes a lot of coffee sales to succeed. Espresso Passion had its regulars but it was a large space with room for something else — someone with an even larger personality.
“He missed his pizzeria,” Nadia recalled. “He wanted to come back and I said something needs to happen with the café. It was a big space to run as a café alone.”
So in 2013, Roberto traded his button downs for his chef’s whites. The brother and sister team rebranded the café as Roberto’s Pizza Passion and filled the place with hungry diners who missed The Pizza Dude as much he missed them.
The two agreed to run the place together until Roberto’s thrived. Then Nadia would move on to her next project.
In the meantime, she served tables and greeted diners alongside her brother. Then she moved into the office while Roberto took his rightful place as “the heart and soul of the operation.”
He would remain that for the next six years, greeting regulars with hugs, adding a wood-fired oven to channel Napoli in St. Catharines, and other culinary homages to Italy. Pasta, scratch soups made by their mom, Vilma, and pizza’s soul mate chicken wings rounded out the menu.
Roberto dedicated himself to building the community around him as much as his business. He helped found the annual Facer Festival and raised money for neighbourhood beautification projects that would restore the street to how he remembered it growing up.
“For my brother the motivation was he would build something on Facer that was a legacy for his kids, to leave a mark on Facer that said this was the Vergalito family so they could drive by one day say this was my family,” Nadia said. “My brother was always very nostalgic that way.”
Nadia became less of a fixture but that changed in late 2019 when Roberto died suddenly. His passing left a gaping hole in the neighbourhood and in the hearts of everyone who knew him.
It also left Nadia, Vilma, and Roberto’s wife, Frankie, with a restaurant to run. And they do it to honour Roberto’s legacy and passion — and the story of an Italian immigrant family in St. Catharines.
The trio had to turn to old videos Roberto made about perfecting pizza dough to ensure product consistency.
“I have now become the Pizza Dudette,” Nadia said with a laugh. “My favourite compliment is when people say ‘This is the best pizza I’ve had since your brother was alive’. ”
These days, though, business is different. The wood-fired oven isn’t running — Napoli-style pizza doesn’t translate well to takeout. But the traditional pizzas for which Roberto was always known are still fixtures, and can be made gluten-free.
Affordable family meals that feed four to six people and feature Italian staples like garlic bread, choice of salad, entrées, including chicken Parmesan, and pasta, are a pandemic-inspired option. À la carte noodles, wings and calzones are also available to go.
It’s about taking care of people during an uncertain time, Nadia explained. It’s exactly what her brother would do, too, if he were here.
“He had a passion for food and that’s what he loved to do. It’s how he showed love to the community,” Nadia said. “I think he’d thrive (right now) and be going above and beyond to make sure people are fed. My brother does what he does for love, not money.”