Helicopter pilot Corey Arsenault's days of fighting forest fires in the B.C. bush, moving oil rigs around the Northwest Territories and flying scientists into the Arctic are over.
The Edmonton native has swapped his rotors for a restaurant and a more grounded life with his Victoria-born wife and stepdaughter.
Arsenault opens Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria in Market Square on Thursday, an ambitious undertaking that also happens to fall on his 33rd birthday.
And while he is well aware of the risky nature of restaurants and the high costs of converting a former garden store inside a heritage space, Arsenault believes he's found a franchise that will really fly in the Victoria market.
Famoso is an Edmonton-based chain of casual dining pizzerias specializing in the original pies from Naples, which use authentic domed ovens and imported Caputo flour, Campania tomatoes and whole-milk mozzarella.
"It's a gourmet product that I really believe in, and I think Victorians will really like it with the type of atmosphere we've created here," Arsenault said this week as a beehive of about 60 staff went through training.
It's the 16th location for Famoso and part of a push into B.C. for the Alberta company founded by Justin Lussier, an Edmonton native and Camosun College alumnus who became "insanely passionate" for Neapolitan pizzas while travelling there in 2005.
The company, which has 12 Alberta locations and two in Toronto, opened a restaurant on Commercial Drive in Vancouver earlier this year and has others coming in Abbotsford, Kelowna and downtown Vancouver this fall.
Arsenault converted the former Dig This garden store in Market Square into an impressive new restaurant, complete with 5,000-pound pizza oven decorated in broken tiles illustrating a map of Italy. It wasn't an easy undertaking, with the makeover stretching over four months and including all new wiring, plumbing and fixtures. He didn't disclose the cost of the project, which he shared with family partners, but said "it wasn't a drop in the bucket ... and there's wasn't one square inch we didn't touch."
The space at the corner of Johnson and Wharf streets has been home to eateries in the past, noteably the Paradise Grill and Tommy Bahamas. And although some have called the corner a "dead zone" and jinxed as it fails to draw significant traffic, Arsenault believes Famoso can turn that around.
Besides its pizzas - which are certified by Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an organization dedicated to preserving the standards of true Neapolitan pizzas - Famoso also serves a variety of Mediterranean appetizers, salads, fired-bread sandwiches, Italian desserts like gelato, affogato and tiramisu and wine and beer. There's also a kid's menu and a selection of "new world" pizzas with toppings more accustomed to North American palates.
Arsenault said the price points and atmosphere will be draws, with markup on wines at about $15 a bottle while most restaurants double the retail price.
Lussier and partners Jason Allard and Christian Bullock launched Famoso at the peak of the economic boom and have experienced most of their growth during the economic meltdown after 2008. Lussier said that had everything to do with decent pricing on quality products and a casual atmosphere.
"We wanted to create a place where a construction worker can rub shoulders with a business person and neither feel out of place - and they walk out the door feeling they got a good deal and good service," Lussier said from Vancouver.
Famoso isn't the first to offer authentic Naples pizza in Victoria. Cristen DeCarolis and Geoffrey Dallas, who moved here from the Silicon Valley, opened Prima Strada in 2008 and have gained a healthy following over the years with locations on Cook Street and the Gorge area. Their restaurants are also certified by Naples.
Arsenault believes there's room for another, particularly downtown as another lunch and dinner option for the business crowd and growing residential population. "I think when people see what we offer and taste what we have, they will be amazed," he said.
He said he's looking forward to a new challenge after a decade in the skies. Although he isn't giving up flying completely, Arsenault is looking forward to being home every night with his wife, Tanya White, who was born and raised in Victoria, and stepdaughter, Madison Cool.
"This is more about family and being in the city I love and being close to home," said Arsenault.
Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria is at 128-560 Johnson St. Call 250-590-2648. www.famoso.ca.
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