killed him in 2016.
The stroke hit while he was on a wine trip in Venice, staying alone at a friend’s house. He doesn’t remember anything about the incident, but it left him unconscious for three days before he was discovered. He was in a coma for a month.
Today he is still wheelchair-bound, recovering at Baycrest health centre. His room is covered floor to ceiling with get well messages and photos of friends and family. He has the distinguished aspect of a professor, with tousled grey hair and thick-rimmed glasses. Sometimes he takes a while to answer questions, but when he does, the vibrant intellect for which he’s known shines through in its entirety.
As a result of the stroke, Grano closed in late 2018. The restaurant had been open for 32 years, although calling it a restaurant doesn’t really cut it. Public discussion forum, cultural promotion centre, ideas incubator, 19th-century-style salon, concert venue, art gallery, lecture hall — these are also close but not quite there. Grano was a mix of all those things, and that was the intention from the beginning.
“Our goal was to do something cultural as much as it was to do something culinary and commercial,” Martella says.
That might be why, when reminiscing about the place, he doesn’t immediately mention the penne alla Norma, the orecchiette with sausage and rapini, the white chocolate with raspberry dessert or even the signature calamari, sourced with meticulousness and coated in house-made focaccia.
As much as anything else, the social element made Grano unique. The poetry readings, the Language and Linguini Italian lessons, the book launches and the fiery Grano Speakers Series, which saw renowned intellectuals such as Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens and Camille Paglia share their ideas to an invite-only crowd.
According to the Globe and Mail, former Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff — who was a speaker at the aforementioned series — believed it was a particularly tough room to work.
“There is simply nothing like it, as a venue, anywhere else,” Ignatieff said. “You’re at a restaurant, standing at the bar with mike in hand, knowing that the town’s bankers, entrepreneurs, professors and writers are all in the same room, waiting to eat you for dessert!”
Martella opened Grano with his wife, Lucia RuggieroMartella, in 1986.
They had never operated a restaurant before — Martella’s wife, actually, had never even worked in one — but their life journey to that point had left them ripe for such an undertaking.
Born in 1953 to an Italian father and an Italian-Canadian mother, Martella grew up above his father’s barbershop near Steeles and Bathurst. He was the middle child, with two brothers and sisters. Growing up, he’d work at the barbershop sweeping floors, taking a peek at the occasional GQ or Esquire while he was at it.
Arguably, good food is central to most Italian families, and it was no different in his. He was raised on house-made prosciutto, and he fondly recalls his mother’s labour-intensive tomato sauce, which she’d leave simmering on the stove all night long. His father had a penchant for calling home out of the blue, indicating that an impromptu get-together of friends was about to happen at their dinner table.
Really, though, Martella’s mother kickstarted his culinary journey, he says, even if he feels it’s a little overplayed to admit as much.
“All the great chefs of the world, their first memories of their food are from their mother,” he says. “They all acknowledge that debt to their mother.”
Following university, he had an urge to travel, so he went to Japan, eventually becoming a roadie for a drumming group from Sado Island. (Now known as Kodo, the band still performs to this day.) He lived in Italy, too, and briefly in the U.K., bartending or waiting at restaurants to satiate his evergrowing curiosity about people and ideas.
“His love is people,” his wife says. “He will welcome anyone and everyone. He has that quality to speak on a variety of subjects.”
He made that skill apparent during their first encounter in 1979, she says, when he was back in Toronto working at a restaurant at Dufferin and St. Clair Avenue West. He discovered she was studying anthropology, so he started up a discussion about cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. The stratagem worked: by 1985 they were married.
“He can pinpoint something to fit the occasion,” she says, “and he usually hits the spot.”
Martella spent some time organizing events and dinners for the Canadian Italian Business and Professional Association, and he says his wife was quite helpful during that time, so he had a growing sense that they could pull off a restaurant. Around a year after that, they opened Grano.
Looking back, Martella says a primary source of inspiration was the contrast between the Italian culture he’d seen in the motherland and the culture he grew up with in Canada.
“The Italy we’d visit was different from the Italy we were raised with,” he says. “Italy was very modern and secular, but the Italy I saw in Canada was very church influenced. It had
His love is people. He will welcome anyone and everyone.”