Making an authentic pizza Napoletana is an Art, according to Joe Farruggio, the mind behind the wildly successful Georgetown’s restaurant Il Canale. Ksenija Pavlovic McAteer speaks with Mr. Farruggio about his origin story.
If you are privy to the Washingtonian social circles, you must have heard of Il Canale, a celebrity hot spot in the heart of the nation capital’s neighborhood Georgetown. Everyone in the Who’s Who in American Power playbook has dined here. Il Canale has been a go-to place of journalists, actors and heads of states from Hillary Clinton to Brigitte Macron to Nancy Pelosi to Ivanka Trump. Harrison Ford likes to come here when he is in town, and when he shows up, it’s very low key.
The mastermind behind the Il Canale’s success is an old school Italian born in Sicily, Joe Farruggio, whose dream has always been to create the family restaurant where Washingtonians and visitors from all over the world could enjoy the authentic pizza Napolitana, made with organic 00 flour. Il Canale’s is known for its authentic Verace pizza Italiana and is the only restaurant in D.C. to receive the top culinary honor from the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce and the National Institute of Tourism. With numerous awards over the last 10 years, Il Canale showcases the gastronomic heritage of Sicily and Naples with critically acclaimed pizza, pasta, fish and delicious desserts.
Joe Farruggio talks about his entrepreneurial journey from his humble beginnings as a pizza maker in New York City to making Il Canale the great success that it is today.
“I've been in the restaurant business since 1978", Joe Farruggio starts off his rags-to-riches story. "Before owning my own business, I started by working in a pizzeria in New York in 1970, five days after I came from Italy with a ship called Michelangelo. My uncle lived in New York since 1953, and when he came back to Sicily around 1965, he asked my father if we wanted to come to America. He offered to sponsor us. My father decided to venture to America. He registered us with immigration. So, we went through the whole process and we came here. At that time I was only 16 and a half years old, and my aunt told me that if I want to do good, she recommended doing what all the Italians did when they come from Napoli, Calabria, Sicily, and that was to learn how to make pizza and then to open a pizzeria. Following her advice, I’ve started working in a pizzeria in New York.
New York at that time was like a candy store for me. I came from Sicily, a small little village of 5000 people, and I had this vision that America was gonna be like a candy store to me. My uncle did a good job describing America to me. So, when I came here, I loved it from day one, you know. And English was really easy to pick up.
I worked in many pizzerias in New York City. I saw, you know, how things work. And then, a job opportunity moved me to North Virginia. It was 1977. And I realized when I came to Virginia, that the Italian culture was scarce; there was nothing Italian in Northern Virginia, nothing in DC. I can tell you that you could not even get a cappuccino. The only place was here in Georgetown, it was called Cafe de Paris. You could not get anything Italian really," Farruggio recalls.
Anyway, I came to the D.C. beltway, and once I knew what to do, it exploded. I went to work in this little pizzeria in Manassas, Virginia. I opened it for the gentleman, and very soon we had people waiting in line, the newspapers started talking about my pizza and you know, it was like an explosion. I was running the place for him, and it exploded with success. But in the back in my mind, I heard the words of my aunt saying, ‘you will make good money if you open your own place,’ so I knew I was gonna do that. I wanted to work for myself, to have my own restaurant. In Sicily, we work in agriculture and pretty much grow up doing our own thing. We don’t work for other people. So, I wanted to work for myself. I wanted to be an entrepreneur.”
Farruggio would be working during the day, and then, during the night he would be driving around looking for a location for his own restaurant. Finally, he found a place in Woodbridge, Virginia. “I called my brother in New York and asked him if he wanted to come to do this together, and we opened this little place. It cost me almost nothing to start my own business,” he says.“I started by going to Giant to buy bread, salami, ham, provolone to make sandwiches. After about a month, though, I called a wholesaler and they gave me a little credit. And then, you know, my first business became a success. The name was Joe’s Place: Pizzas and Subs. Then, I switched to Joe's Place: Pizza and Pasta after I had a few locations like that. I grew my business to about five locations. I never franchised; it was family operated.”
Somewhere around that time, Farruggio went through a divorce, and his life changed. ”You know: I had the flip of my life. I was working hard, a lot. I wasn't paying too much attention I guess. I mean, I was paying attention to the best of my ability but I worked too much. I decided to close the restaurants. The good thing about it was that I bought real estate, so I was able to sublease it to other restaurants. I simplified my life. I started running marathons, you know, with my group of runners from Italy and from all over the world.”
In 2008, a friend he met at Joe's Place said to him: “we have to do something together, we have to bring the Napolitan pizza to America.” Farruggio was not interested, but he agreed to go one summer to Napoli, Italy, and see his friend’s concept.
“You know, I really didn't know anything about Neapolitan pizza at that time. I knew Pizza, New York style, well. But authentic and Neapolitan pizza, if you really pay attention to the flavors, is like switching from darkness to light. Pizza Napoletana is soft, tender and juicy. You can either eat with fork and knife or by folding it with your hands. When you eat it, you can taste the juicy sauce and the buffalo mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes. At Il Canale, we only use 00 organic flour, which enhances the favor when you eat it. And it’s also healthy.”
Then and there, Farruggio fell in love with Neapolitan pizza. “Even with Joe’s Place”, he says, “my commitment has always been to make the best pizza in the world. My philosophy has always been: if I am gonna do it, I want to do it with the best ingredients, the best organic flour and create the best quality. That was my original idea.”
However, Joe’s initial hesitation to take on business partners proved wise, as the partnership failed before it even developed. He had to go through litigation, and once it was over, he decided to go ahead and venture on his own.
“The strength was that I believed in myself. It is better not to have partners, but if you take on partners, take people you know well and can trust,” Farruggio shares his formula to success.
“Il Canale happened because it was meant to happen”, Farruggio explains. Once the litigation with his former business partner was over, he decided to use his forty years of experience to make the concept work. “I put everything I had on the line,'' he reveals, “but I knew I had forty years of experience at that moment to succeed”.
The name Il Canale came very naturally to Farruggio. “I looked around, and I said the canal is in Georgetown, is the main attraction. No other restaurant used it as a name, and I translated it into Italian. I put the concept together, and we opened up Il Canale in January 2010, officially.”
Farruggio hired a gentleman, Antonio Biglietto, to run his kitchen and it was a success ever since. “But day one was another test for me. We were ready to open at the beginning of January. I hired two managers and a chef. We trained them. We had wine, the tasting menu, and we were ready to open for family and friends, we invited 400 people. We filled up the restaurant with reservations, and then, the night before, we had a snowstorm,” Farruggio recalls.
“The same night we had the snowstorm, we had about one meter, you know, three feet of snow. So, the people I hired and trained could not come to work, so we could not open. What did we do? We started again. I never gave up. I saw Il Canale the way it was today. I saw it. I knew that with my experience and concept, I could take on anything. Just like in Karate: just step on it and go, you know? I knew it was gonna happen.“
While there are many Italian pizzerias and restaurants across America, Il Canale is known for its authenticity. “There are real Italians, and there are wannabe Italians,” Farruggio says with laughter. “When you are Italian, you do not think much about what it means, but Italy is a country that everyone admires. I have traveled all over Italy and seen the culture from the North to South and the differences between them. What I bring here is the culture of the South. It’s about the family. In Italy, life happens around the food. Family happens around the food. The highlights of my life are around Christmas, holidays, birthdays; that’s an Italian way of life. That’s embedded at Il Canale. I was always looking forward to flavors, and I bring that to Il Canale. Cooking is an art. I like to keep it simple. I use ingredients that I can pronounce: olive oil, salt, pepper, rosemary.
Teresa Orlando Farruggio, Joe’s wife, is a creative director at Il Canale, and she’s the one who put little touches in the kitchen. She’s been adding new desserts and appetizers to the menu, such as famous tarta siciliana and arancini.
All desserts at Il Canale are based on family recipes from Farruggio’s family. Il Canale is also famous for its Cannoli with the cream imported directly from Sicily. This dessert originates from the Farruggios’ hometown.
Il Canale indeed is serving some of the best pizza in the world. So what's the secret to the restourant's enormous success? “You have to have passion for this, and I am always proud to hear my customers say ‘I’ve never had a better pizza in my life.’ My hope is that it’s all about an Italian experience. Once you enter the doors of Il Canale, you feel like you are in Italy. With my experience and commitment, this is what I’ve created,” Farruggio concludes his success story.
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