Have you ever opened a business during a pandemic? Amy and Daisuke Matsumoto have. It’s been a long, bumpy road, but fans from as far away as Longview, a fierce local following, and unfailing customer and staff focus keep La Sorrentina on the go six days a week.
Opening as a food truck in Hazel Dell, the Matsumotos always planned to open a bricks-and-mortar shop. Daisuke, or Dice-K as he is known, is an Italy trained pizzaiolo of Japanese descent like his father before him. Fresh brick oven pizzas and unbeatable imported gluten-free dough earned Pizzeria La Sorrentina notice throughout the Portland metro area.
The couple leased a space on 164th Avenue in East Vancouver in late 2018, but a series of construction and design missteps delayed the opening. Then came early 2020, and the final supplies such as a range hood started to come much more slowly than anticipated. In retrospect, these new delays in delivery and availability were due to the spread of the novel coronavirus throughout the world. Nonetheless, they pushed forward.
The couple had hired another Italy schooled pizzaolo-in-training, a dessert specialist and several other staff. The hiring process was meticulous and exacting, and a committee of five people interviewed and hired everyone – they wanted the perfect team to open the restaurant. Finally, the couple brought Dice-K’s instructor and mentor, Master Chef Biagio Longo, over from Italy in February to train staff and help open the restaurant, and a soft opening was scheduled for March.
On Saturday, March 14, the pizzeria opened with a limited menu but full house and line out the door. Sunday looked much the same. Then a customer came in late in the day and asked Amy if he could have the last pizza. She didn’t understand – the last pizza? That customer broke the news about Gov. Jay Inslee’s Stay Home order. Amy and her staff didn’t tell Dice-K right away. He was too busy in the new kitchen, living out his dream.
“Some of the staff started to cry,” said Amy. “We were in shock.”
That’s when things really began to fall apart.
The storefront was closed on Monday, as it normally would be, and by Tuesday the whole staff was laid off. The Matsumotos couldn’t immediately turn their attention to take-out and other food service options because Dice K’s beloved maestro needed to get home to Italy – at that time the epicenter of the pandemic – and he had run out of his essential heart medication. His flight home was canceled three times, and the family was working round the clock to protect him from the pandemic that was hitting hard stateside, with the U.S. epicenter just three hours north of Vancouver.
They finally got Longo safely on a plane only to realize their hand-curated and maestro-trained staff was scattering to the winds to take care of family and find other employment or collect unemployment.
“Because they have families, we never want to make anybody feel pressured. They have to think about themselves first,” said Amy. “It was very heavy for Dice-K to carry.”
But soon, another customer helped change La Sorrentina’s trajectory. They wrote a poem about the restaurant and shared it with the Matsumotos. It was moving to see how much their customers really cared. They started rehiring the staff they could find and looking for others to join the team. Each new hire has been a public celebration on the eatery’s Facebook page.
The staff is by-the-book, following strict new safety and social distancing protocols. The storefront reopened for takeout on May 16, two months after shutting down. Today is the final inspection on the new range hood, and soon the menu will be filled with a full plate of Italian specialties.
“We want to follow whatever the state feels is best. When they say we move to Phase 2, we go to Phase 2. We have everybody that can come back, back. They were our priority because they were hurting,” said Amy. “We want to bring back the people who started with us first, we brought them on for a reason. We had a specialist for dessert and dough, a pizzaiolo-in-training, a manager who could do everything helping with training, an amazing line cook and servers — we searched high and low.”
La Sorrentina is taking orders by phone, Facebook message, email – anyway they can. Most days, they can have a pizza ready 20 minutes after ordering it, but at certain times, the wait can be more than an hour, and reserving a time is best. With the food cart as their foundation, they are more than used to managing take out in this way, but La Sorrentina was always meant to be a dine-in experience, and the Matsumotos are confident the path will keep unfolding in the direction of their dreams.
“I feel we’re going to be OK for now,” said Amy. “I hope so.”