For Diana Cline, the real proof is in the pie.
In the restaurant business for over a quarter century, Cline’s focus is solidly on bringing true taste and quality to Winnipeggers looking for a great pizza.
Diana’s Cucina & Lounge (the Italian word ‘cucina’ means ‘kitchen’) has now been in business in St. Vital for two years. But before that, she was stacking up accolades for her pizza in the same neighbourhood — and mostly in the same strip mall — at Diana’s Gourmet Pizzeria for 16 years. She co-owned the restaurant with her ex-husband where she won five Canadian pizza-making titles, did herself proud at competitions in the U.S. and Italy, and was featured on famous TV show, You Gotta Eat Here, on the Food Network Canada. To complete her divorce, she says the old business had to be shut down.
“When I closed at the end of March of 2014, I didn’t know if I’d ever be in the restaurant business again,” she says. “It was a very difficult decision, but the right one.”
Before her success owning and operating restaurants, Cline worked at a chain pizza company, both as a delivery driver and in the kitchen. But experience getting her hands in the dough started long before.
“I grew up baking with my mom and grandma in the kitchen,” she says. “Baking is in my blood. My great-grandfather owned a bakery in Winnipeg a long, long time ago and my grandmother grew up working in the business, as was the norm at the time.”
Developing mouth-watering pizza creations
Cline’s pizzas were always about quality and not quantity — so forget the “two-for-one” deals. She’s long had confidence that those looking for a real pizza would come her way.
Cline’s menu still features creations that have won best pizza awards from Canadian Pizza magazine. There’s the Big D’ Bodacious BLT — a pie with no sauce, including a blend of cheddar combined with mozzarella, capicollo-style ham and side bacon topped with romaine lettuce, Roma tomatoes and ranch dressing on a Moosehead beer crust. And the Award Winner — including olive oil and herb sauce, mozzarella, smoked ham, red peppers, Roma tomatoes and green olives with a herb medley also on Moosehead beer crust. She has always focused on creating decadent pizzas like these, but also healthy ones.
“I came up with my (now) very well known Moosehead beer dough recipe back in 2005 when Canadian Pizza magazine held their first ‘Canada’s Best Pizza Chef’ recipe contest,” Cline says. “The contest had 40 common pizza ingredients and you needed to make three recipes from scratch. You were allowed to use five secret ingredients of your choosing.” And she knew her secret ingredient could be something that put her pies over the top.
“I wanted to create something distinctly Canadian, so I spent a few nights brainstorming what that really meant to me. It came to me late one night that I would put beer in the dough. Moosehead beer was in the fridge and the rest was history.”
She created her whole-wheat pizza dough when she switched to eating whole-wheat bread at home.
“I wanted to see if I could make a healthier pizza on a whole-wheat crust that still tasted like something you’d enjoy eating,” she said. “I was hesitant to put it on the menu, because I didn’t know if any of my customers would like it. Pizza was mostly viewed only as a ‘junk food,’ and at the time there wasn’t a huge movement for healthier options. But it grew very popular and became a big part of our menu.”
Cline also relishes playing with unusual combinations and flavours.
“Often I’ll be inspired by another dish and wonder what it’d be like as a pizza,” she says. “I like combining sweet and spicy, salty and sweet, and playing with different topping textures on the pizza. To me, pizza is the perfect food, providing it’s made with real food ingredients. I love real food ingredients and real 100 per cent dairy cheeses.”
Why her local customer base is so important
While Cline’s accolades have led to her working with the Canadian International Grains Institute and the American Institute of Baking, she’s never taken for granted the local customers who always play a key role in her culinary success — from offering honest feedback on her “out-there” takes on pizza to heartily supporting her comeback in the neighbourhood.
“St. Vital is where my original concept was born and raised, and where I developed a very loyal, long-standing customer base,” Cline says. “It’s helped us grow and shape our menu. Many of the unusual specialty pizzas on our menu wouldn’t be there if not for the feedback of the community. And our gluten-free and vegan-friendly options are directly in response to their requests. My business exists because of the community, and our customers are the lifeblood of our work.
“It was a tough comeback to say the least. I had two very young boys to look after each step of the way. But perseverance and determination, along with great partners and a good team, as well as a very loyal clientele who came back, were my biggest strengths and assets.”
How technology has helped her business grow
Technology has always played a substantial role in Cline’s success. She says almost everything about her business is tech-based — from the point-of-sale system that helps streamline operations and track customer preferences, orders and deliveries, to the systems and apps that produce reports and keep everything for the back of the house in order.
“Our online ordering company integrates our website orders directly into our kitchen, and we use software that allows me to log in from anywhere, day or night, to program or interact with our system,” Cline says.
“Not to forget our phone system which streamlines busy periods. When several calls come in at the same time, it automatically hunts for the next open line. Most days I have the option to work from home, simply because of technology.”
The growth of social media has allowed Cline to connect more than ever with both customers and staff, but it’s also driven areas of her business she couldn’t have predicted when she started.
“We sell a lot of dough balls, and many of our customers post pictures of their creations on our Facebook page and Instagram,” Cline says. “I’m delighted at the endless creativity of all the posts! People love to create their own unique ‘perfect pizza’ you’d never think to find on a menu. Last year, I created a pizza with a local farmer sausage, French fries and eggs, and when I put it on the menu I didn’t know if anyone would ever order it, but it turns out my customers are up to try something different than the standard pepperoni pizza. It’s still on the menu and it’s actually really tasty.”
The future of business in Winnipeg
The pizza business never fails to surprise, Cline says, and she puts the demand for gluten-free options right up with the love for novel pizzas on social media.
“I didn’t realize how many gluten-intolerant and gluten-sensitive people missed having pizza as part of their regular diet,” she says. “It’s a market that is growing every year.”
As for the future, Cline plans to look into relaunching a big favourite at her former restaurant.
“We still have dozens of people coming in every week looking for our frozen pizzas, so my partners and I have decided to put the effort and investment into launching a new frozen gourmet pizza line,” she says.
At the end of the day, a busy shift of making pizzas continues to drive Cline.
“I like to think of all the happy families we took care of, and of my team who handled the rush (or rushes) well, increasing their skills while having fun at the same time,” Cline says. “We’ve got a great team working together. You can’t help but care about one another, so it feels like family.”
Diana’s Cucina & Lounge is located at R-730 St. Anne’s Rd., in the Southglen Shopping Centre, and offers take-out, delivery and dining in the licensed, family-friendly lounge. For more information, visit dianascucinaonline.ca.
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