Behind the scenes with Michele Forgione

photo by Vincenzo D'Alto

by Sal Difalco

“I was making pasta at seven years old,” recalls chef and restaurateur Michele Forgione, not to validate his kitchen prowess, but as testament to his deeply rooted passion for Italian cuisine. True validation comes in the form of five-star reviews, a best-selling cookbook, a nationally distributed food line, a healthy soupçon of celebrity and bustling patronage for his current Montreal eateries: Impasto, Gema Pizzeria and Chez Tousignant.

Forgione, 42, recently joined Panoram Italia as the magazine’s new food editor and credits his family—hailing from the Campania region, near Avellino —for his life’s direction, notwithstanding nods to Julia Child, The Galloping Gourmet and Pasquale’s Kitchen Express. “Those TV programs did influence me!” he admits with a laugh. “But I grew up in the kitchen watching mom and nonno cook and gained an early respect from them for our culinary traditions.”

While his mother Filomena may have taught him the rudiments of pasta-making, it was his namesake, maternal grandfather Michele, who ignited the first sparks of his future vocation. “By the age of 11, I was helping him with the wine and tomato-canning,” he says. “Nonno was a bricklayer who tended to his garden every day after work. He taught me to be thankful for everything and to waste nothing. He took pride in growing his own food and would bring it fresh to table, something that has stuck with me.”

Michele Forgione with Impasto’s chef cuisine, Alicia Colacci, photo by Vincenzo D’Alto

A tragedy served as another learning experience for Forgione. On the eve of his 18th birthday his father died, shattering the family. “It was a time of unbearable pain,” he recalls. “But it hammered home how short life was and convinced me that I had to realize my own dreams.”

Pursuant to those dreams, he enrolled in culinary schools—Pius Culinary Institute and the ITHQ—studying pastry-making as well as cooking. “I wanted to know every aspect of the kitchen,” he insists, “from top to bottom.” After classes, he took on restaurant jobs. For the next three years, he plunged into studies and work, forgoing all else. “It was tough,” he admits. “I was never home. My mother would ask why I wanted to slave for others, working long hours and making little money. But I was prepared to sacrifice to achieve my goals.”

It paid off. After a succession of jobs in retirement home commissaries, humble bakeries and five-star hotels, Forgione landed at Osteria Venti in Old Montreal and quickly established himself. During his stint there he met celebrity chef Stefano Faita, of CBC’s In The Kitchen With Stefano Faita. “He wanted to open his own restaurant,” Forgione says. “He’d learned to cook at his mother Elena’s cooking school, Mezza Luna, but needed to partner with an experienced chef.”

They continued their dialogue, appeared together in several TV shows and finally opened Impasto in 2013, near the cornucopian Jean Talon Market, tabling a menu inspired by their respective mothers, Elena and Filomena.

Featuring authentic regional cuisine from every corner of Italy, with everything from salumi to gelato made in-house, Impasto immediately impressed Montrealers and has cemented its place there as a citadel of authentic Italian food.

Prompted by Impasto’s success, Forgione and Faita opened Gema in 2014, a pizzeria boasting a familiar formula of quality ingredients and loving preparation. “We even make our own pepperoni,” Forgione says.

A year later, partnering with Yann Turcotte, a pastry school alum, Forgione launched Chez Tousignant, serving casse-croûte classics—a departure from his Italian repertoire. “Yann wanted an uncomplicated but uncompromising snack bar,” he explains, “with everything made from scratch, including the hot dogs and buns.”

Plans for a fourth, yet-unnamed venue are being drawn. “It will be an old-school trattoria,” Forgione suggests, “emphasizing more casual and North American-influenced cuisine — a place for family and friends.”

On his joining Panoram Italia, Forgione says, “I believe in conserving the future of the Italian culture, cuisine and arts. Partnering with the magazine seemed a perfect way to do that.”

Asked about any food trends tickling his fancy, Forgione quotes the recently departed fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld. “Trendy is the last stage before tacky,” he quips. “But seriously, I’m not interested in reinventing or innovating anything. This is a cuisine that’s been passed on for generations; I want to preserve it.”