From Yorkville to Top Chef

Pow­er­house restau­ra­teur Janet Zuc­carini dishes on T.O. food scene by Caro­line Ak­sich

Bayview Post - - Food -

In this town, your av­er­age restau­rant won’t see its eighth birth­day.

“I think a healthy dose of para­noia in busi­ness is a good thing,” says Janet Zuc­carini, one of

Top Chef Canada’s new­est res­i­dent judges, while re­flect­ing on her two decades as a restau­ra­teur.

Since open­ing Trattoria Ner­vosa in 1996, Zuc­carini has re­fused to let her Yorkville stal­wart go stale.

“It helps to have a Triple A lo­ca­tion, and the cor­ner of Yorkville and Bel­lair is just that,” says Zuc­carini. Lo­ca­tion aside, she’s not con­tent to just let her busi­nesses sit.

“I be­lieve in never rest­ing on your lau­rels,” says Zuc­carini, who has been at the grind since mid­dle school, when she staffed the shop at her fa­ther’s epony­mous espresso ma­chine im­port­ing com­pany.

“Af­ter 20 years of beat­ing up on that build­ing — we see be­tween 800 to 1,000 cus­tomers a day in that small house — it’s just time to ren­o­vate,” says Zuc­carini of her Yorkville restau­rant.

For most, a slap of fresh­en­ing paint would suf­fice. Not so for this en­tre­pre­neur. She’s dou­bling the size of the restau­rant with a bold new ad­di­tion.

“I am work­ing with Par­ti­sans ar­chi­tec­ture firm, where the av­er­age age in the com­pany is 27. They have am­bi­tious ideas,” she says, while re­main­ing re­luc­tant to give up too many par­tic­u­lars.

What­ever the man­i­fes­ta­tion of the hy­per-mod­ern ad­di­tion, her­itage fa­nat­ics needn’t fret: the Vic­to­rian cot­tage will re­main, as will the menu sta­ples. The kale salad — Toronto’s first ac­cord­ing to Zuc­carini — is there to stay.

Al­though Zuc­carini might not be a house­hold name (yet!), any Chowhound junkies worth their salt know about this pil­lar of the Toronto food scene. Apart from toss­ing kale be­fore it was cool, Zuc­carini comes from a fam­ily of food mav­er­icks. Her fa­ther was the first espresso pusher in Toronto in the ’80s. Be­fore he started im­port­ing Ital­ian ma­chines, the only brew in town was wa­tery drip cof­fee. You have him to thank for your five-dol­lar-a-day cap­puc­cino habit.

Zuc­carini may have in­her­ited her en­tre­pre­neur­ial bent from her fa­ther, but she honed it in Rome — where she ob­tained her MBA — while scoot­ing around town on her Mo­torino and feast­ing on fan­tas­tic Ro­man foods that she would later recre­ate in Toronto.

Dur­ing this pe­riod, she also started cook­ing for her­self.

“I had the op­por­tu­nity to cook with out­stand­ing in­gre­di­ents from the farm­ers’ mar­ket and small neigh­bour­hood stores close to my home in Rome,” she says. “This is when a true love af­fair with food and eat­ing well re­ally so­lid­i­fied.”

Her busi­ness savvy is ev­i­dent with pur­chases like Gusto 101. She picked up a me­chanic’s shop on King West for a song af­ter the 2008 crash. Now, the ex-in­dus­trial site an­chors one of Toronto’s buzzi­est din­ing strips.

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