Opening a restaurant isn’t for the faint of heart.
Opening a restaurant during a pandemic? Well, that’s for someone else entirely. Like Mike and Robyn Burgess.
The husband and wife team not only took a chance on their own restaurant when they opened The Twisted Pig Italian Kitchen in Port Dalhousie last August, they also took a chance on doing it in an entirely new city.
“In the middle of a pandemic, we decided to take the plunge and jump in,” Mike said. “We were counting on the fact the pandemic wouldn’t last forever. It was buy low and hope to still be here when it’s over.”
So far, diners are doing their share to ensure that’s the case. Many have become regulars in the few short months The Twisted Pig has been open on the corner of Lock Street and Lakeport Road. But the Burgesses are also doing their part to make it easy for them.
For starters, the entire business model of The Twisted Pig hangs on using seasonal and unadulterated ingredients in everything that comes out of the kitchen.
The Caprese salad that was such a hit this summer? It was simply good tomatoes from the garden of the Burgesses’ wine rep landing on a plate the day they were picked, then dressed with olive oil alongside fresh burrata.
“There’s no disguising it,” Mike said.
Even as the weather turns colder and gives kitchens different ingredients with which to work, the approach to food at The Twisted Pig remains the same. The fall spin on that classic Caprese stars beets, burrata, crushed pistachio and basil, for example.
There are other comforts, too. They tend to come in carb form, including the fan favourite gnocchi gorgonzola, featuring hand-made potato gnocchi, gorgonzola cream sauce and Rosewood Estates Winery wildflower honey.
That dish has been so popular since The Twisted Pig opened that it’s already cemented a permanent spot on the menu alongside a seasonal version Mike makes from scratch every day.
“It’s next level and not something you’re going to make at home, spending a couple hours making gnocchi,” he said. “We’re the opposite of a chain restaurant. Everything is made from scratch and with love.”
And of course there’s pizza, given the wood-fired oven that was already in the restaurant when they bought the building in early summer. There’s classic Margherita, more current Hawaiian for those who don’t have a problem with fruit on their ’za, and everything in between that shines on crust covered with San Marzano tomato sauce and fior di latte.
All of it can be accompanied by wine, “the backbone of Italian cuisine,” including some of Niagara’s best vintages. And all of it can be eaten in the restaurant or taken to go.
Specializing in Italian wasn’t a stretch for the couple who met while working at Il Fornello in Oakville. Mike led the kitchen of the popular Italian eatery after working his way up the ranks from a 17-year-old dishwasher to head chef, with culinary school and stints working in Kelowna, B.C. in between.
Robyn worked front of house. Both had been furloughed from their jobs when they decided to strike out on their own. Neither was daunted by the fact they were purchasing a restaurant with capacity for 200, including two patios and three dining rooms, during a pandemic.
The couple have been living in Niagara since 2017 and on nights they weren’t commuting to work, they would explore local dining options, including in St. Catharines flourishing dining scene with the likes Oddbird and Dispatch downtown.
But then there was Port Dalhousie in the city’s north end. It had all the natural trappings of a destination with Lakeside Park and all that waterfront. Plus there was the promise of new residents with the condominium developments in the works.
When it came to dining, however, there was room for The Twisted Pig and the Burgesses’ vision of a place for both classic and contemporary Italian.
“The dining scene in Port Dalhousie was almost non-existent and that was the appeal,” Mike said. “There’s a lot of exciting things going on. St. Catharines has a really good dining scene going on but most of that is that pocket on St. Paul Street and bringing life to that area.”
And now The Twisted Pig is bringing la dolce vida to Port, pandemic be darned.
“It was important for us to give the diner the same experience we expect everywhere,” Robyn said. “We’re foodies and we like to dine out. We want to give people that same great experience.”