Edmonton·Through the Pass

'We don't hire cooks ... we just hire people with goodwill'

In our new web series, Through the Pass, Phil Wilson heads into the kitchen to find stories behind some of our favourite dishes.

Panini's Italian Cucina offers traditional fare from a non-traditional restaurant family

Yemane Yohanes (left) and Hannibal Askale (right) are mastering Italian cuisine at Panini's Italian Cucina. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Through the Pass is a new web series from CBC Edmonton. Host Phil Wilson is exploring the stories behind our favourite foods. In restaurants, the pass is the long flat surface where prepared food is plated and passed from the kitchen to the wait staff.

Where is Edmonton's best pizza?

If you asked 10 people, you might very well get 10 different, and very passionate, responses. 

The brothers Caruso (Tony, Roberto, and James) from Panini's Italian Cucina, 8544 Jasper Ave., have been putting out some of Edmonton's finest pies while breaking slightly from traditional New York or Neapolitan styles. 

"My brother Roberto and I really nerded out on the pizza dough process, and I can't tell you how much dough we tossed in the trash before we came up with something we both loved. It's not quite Neapolitan, and not quite New York," Tony Caruso said.

Panini's pizza dough combines the 00 high protein flour and a three-day fermentation demanded by Neapolitan style, and olive oil like its New York cousin. It cooks on the deck of a gas oven. 

The result is a fantastic dough that retains some of the chew and puffy crust of a Neapolitan, but is slightly more tender and perfectly foldable like a New York.

Cook Hannibal Askale perfects the pizza toss:

The rest of the Panini's menu is loaded with traditional Italian recipes passed down through the Caruso family. The kitchen crew executing these dishes, however, is anything but traditional. 

Hannibal Askale and Yemane Yohanes, refugees from Eritrea, have become valuable team members and leaders in the kitchen. At first glance, traditional Italian food and Eritreans might seem an odd pairing, but there is a very real connection.

"Eritrea is an ex-Italian colony — they understand our culture and our family dynamic, and we have a great vibe," Caruso said. 

That understanding of Italian food and culture helps mitigate some of the communication difficulties with staff whose English may be a bit of a work in progress.

Meet the family!

Phil Wilson introduces us to the people behind Panini's Italian Cucina. 4:28

Outside of the family, the current kitchen staff is made up of refugees and new Canadians. Caruso said that wasn't necessarily planned. A combination of Panini's ethnically diverse neighbourhood and a change in hiring principles was the driving force.

"Some people might think we're crazy for hiring people with no experience but our hiring criteria has changed," Caruso said. "We don't hire cooks anymore — we just hire people with goodwill and teach them our systems. It's not easy but it's working."

Askale started at Panini's almost a year ago with no experience, but Rob Caruso recognized his passion for cooking and took him under his wing. Now Askale stretches and tops most of the pizzas that leave the Panini's kitchen, and even Rob Caruso admits that Askale's pizzas are now even better than his own.

Askale and Rob Caruso have an obvious chemistry working together, so when Askale's childhood friend Yohanes arrived in Canada this summer, it only took a few days before he showed up on the restaurant's doorstep looking for work. 

"I asked him if he thought he could cook and he just said, 'Show me once.' He's become a great and reliable line cook," Tony Caruso said.

The kitchen family at Panini's Italian Cucina. Yemane Yohanes, Tony Caruso, Roberto Caruso, and Hannibal Askale. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

The immigrant story is one that hits home for Caruso. His dad was an immigrant and got his start in kitchens. The brothers say that's probably why they're so open to the idea, and don't mind the extra effort it sometimes takes. 

"We're a true rag-tag group of people that wanted to work and needed a chance," Tony Caruso said. "Rob and I teach them one day at a time and sometimes they come out the other side doing it better than us. A little cooking, a little English, a little Canadian culture, and maybe some bad words.

"You don't have to be an old Italian to make good pizza. Just some goodwill and a love for the craft."

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