FOOD

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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.”

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