A theatrical approach elevates the dining experience at General Assembly Pizza.
BY: JEREMY FREED
PHOTOS BY: DEREK SHAPTON
Pizza occupies a rare place, not just among foods but among things in general: Just about everyone likes it, and even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. Why, then, would a Toronto entrepreneur set out to reinvent the pizza parlour? Sitting down for lunch at Toronto’s General Assembly Pizza with owner Ali Khan Lalani, it doesn’t take long to see how much better the humble pizzeria can be. “Outside of the ovens, which are very traditional, and the brick-and-beam of the building, everything else about the concept is new,” says Lalani, who opened General Assembly in an Allied-owned building in Toronto’s Entertainment District in December 2017. He set out to combine the high-quality ingredients and attention to detail of the best table-service restaurants with the convenience and price of takeout joints. He didn’t set out to reinvent the pie itself; instead, he envisioned a dynamic, fun (and, of course, delicious) dining experience where the pizza-making process is easily seen. Judging by the thousands of pies he now serves each week and the dining room buzzing with hungry tourists, office workers and neighbourhood denizens, his formula appears to be working. “Ali expressed that he wanted to put theatre into making pizza,” says Hamid Samad, principal at Commute Design, with whom Lalani worked on the build-out. “We wanted to design a place that would allow for that to happen.”
Commute Design’s efforts transformed the ground floor of this heritage commercial building, completed in 1912, into a bright, vibrant dining room. A natural flow of servers, chefs and diners puts the food centre stage. “We wanted the pizza to be visible from every angle,” says Lalani of the clean, modern space accented with living greenery and cheerful pops of yellow and blue. “We wanted people to see and feel the production of their food.”
As such, a glass-walled prep room greets patrons as they enter, offering them a glimpse of General Assembly’s naturally leavened dough in the midst of its three-day production process. On the other side of the restaurant, chefs toss pies in the air before loading them up and firing them in hand-built Neapolitan ovens. A discreet entrance for couriers, meanwhile, allows the show to go on without interruption and ensures that piping-hot pizzas arrive on customers’ plates (and doorsteps) as quickly as possible.
Lalani now serves upwards of 3,500 pies every week, he says, and a steady half of his sales come from dine-in orders—a noteworthy fact in an industry synonymous with delivery. Because his customers order and pay at a counter before receiving their food, General Assembly has become a particularly popular destination for one group in particular: people on first dates. The appeal of cheque-splitting and the freedom to linger over another glass of the Ontario Gamay Noir on tap—or not, depending on how things go—speak for themselves. So, too, does the fact that no matter how the date turns out, pizza is something pretty much everyone can agree on.
“We wanted the pizza to be visible from every angle.”