From Yorkville to Top Chef
Powerhouse restaurateur Janet Zuccarini dishes on T.O. food scene by Caroline Aksich
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.