Rafael Soldevila, owner of La Fermata in Barcelona’s Zona Alta, talks to us about his love of pizza and how to make the perfect slice
TS: How did you get started in the restaurant business?
RS: My father and his family own the Hotel Majestic group in Barcelona, so hospitality was in my blood right from the start. After finishing university I started working at the Hotel Arts Barcelona in conference and events. Afterwards I transferred to the Hotel Bulgari in Milan, to get experience in housekeeping. I was responsible for controlling all the rooms, restaurant and Spa. I stayed for six months, then went to do a summer season in Formentera as a waiter. I suppose I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and it was during this time that I began to think seriously about the restaurant business. With the help of my older sister and my father we opened La Fermata de Sarrià in 2013, a pizzeria that serves by weight and slice.
TS: You spent some time in Italy learning to make the perfect pizza. Where did you go and why?
RS: In January 2013 I went to Rome for a month to work at one of the best places for pizza by the slice called Pizzarium. A friend I met in Formentera recommended me because he knew the owner, who turned out to be Gabriele Bonci, the best pizzaiola (pizza-maker) in Rome. I learned everything from him, such as what I needed in the kitchen including the best oven and kneader, as well as how to make a great pizza.
TS: What did you learn about the Italian love of pizza?
RS: Working with Gabriele is like being with a celebrity so pizza is taken very seriously in Italy. He is always on the radio or TV, and now has two places: Pizzarium that he opened ten years ago, and a bakery that opened one month before I arrived in Rome callled Panificio. I worked in both places, but the dough itself was made in Panificio and I realised that was the key to everything. After the dough, you need to know how to bake the pizza and how to spice it properly. Balance of ingredients is very important for the flavour, but also if you’re going to have a viable business in terms of food costs. I always knew that Italians love good food, but Rome was something else. It confirmed that whether you’re talking pizza or anything else, Italian’s first love is food and it’s the best in the world.
TS: Why did you decide to open a pizza company in Barcelona instead of something Catalan?
RS: We have a lot of really great products here, like Iberian ham, different kinds of sausages, different types of oil and vegetables that currently form the basis of tapas. At La Fermata I wanted to bring the two culinary cultures together, so by getting a slice, or three, of pizza, its almost like going to eat tapas but in the Italian way.
TS: So, what is the secret of a great pizza?
RS: First it is how you make the dough, and you have to choose because people from Naples do it differently to the people from Rome. Every Italian pizzaiolo has his or her own way. It’s important which flour you use, but also what type of yeast, oil and water. After that, it is important that the dough has two days of fermentation. You need to be careful with the moisture content, and be aware of the weather. If it’s very cold or very hot it could influence your dough so you have to be a bit scientific. If you get the base right, everything else will follow.
TS: Your pizzas are quite innovative, what makes them different?
RS: There are so many pizzerias here, but not many are very good and almost nowhere does it by the slice. My sister’s husband is Italian, and he’s supported me very much, persuading me that it was a good idea. Now we offer more than 150 different kinds of pizzas, but I think what makes us different, and what I keep coming back to is the dough. Our fermentation is for 48 hours in a chamber so that when the dough is cooked it has a thick, chewy crust but at the same time the base is crisp.
TS: How is the business going? Do the good people of Barcelona love pizza as much as you do?
RS: After a year and a half in business I can say we are very happy. The first opened on Sarrià 2-4, next to the Plaça Artós, which is more of a family neighbourhood. After one year we opened our second shop in the centre of Barcelona on Provença 243 between Passeig de Gràcia and Rambla Catalunya where there are lots more tourists, office workers and shops and we’ve found that they all love pizza. At first I think they found it a little strange because they didn’t understand how we worked by weight and they didn’t know how much a slice of pizza would cost, but now I think I can safely say the people love La Fermata!
TS: What words of advice would you give to someone looking to start out in the restaurant business?
RS: Think long and hard about what sort of business you want to open, then search the area where you think you want to be, because it’s all about location, location, location. After that, check out the competition. Some competition is good, too much is not. Finally, and one of the most important things is to see if you have the enough cash flow to open your own business, or if a bank will loan you the cash, with a return of at least five or six years.
TS: When you’re not eating pizza, what are your top three places to eat in the Zona Alta and why?
RS: One of my favourites places is Vivanda on Major de Sarrià. Their Mediterranean cooking is amazing, from how they prepare the dishes to the quality of the ingredients. I like Petit Comitè, a Catalan restaurant on Passatge de la Concepció by the popular chef Nando Jubany and my third place is Escribà in Vila Olímpica, right next to the sea and were you can eat the best paella in Barcelona!