MANY ROADS LEAD TO MER­CURI

On Mon­treal’s restau­rant scene, one fam­ily name has changed the land­scape. Some of the city’s top restau­rants hold the sto­ries of two gen­er­a­tions of moth­ers, cousins, un­cles and teenagers, some who started as bus­boys

Montreal Gazette - - Week­end Life - LES­LEY CH­ESTER­MAN GAZETTE FINE-DIN­ING CRITIC

Above the city of Lamezia-Therme in Cal­abria, Italy, is the hill­top vil­lage of Mer­curi. If not for the im­mi­gra­tion of sev­eral of its res­i­dents in the ’60s, Montreal would have a far less rich and di­verse food scene, for be­hind the stoves at many of the city’s top restau­rants, you’ll find a mem­ber of the Mer­curi fam­ily.

Down­town’s Brontë, Kirk­land’s Mundo Trat­to­ria, West­mount’s Vago, Old Montreal’s XO Le Restau­rant and Lit­tle Italy’s Basi are all op­er­ated by Mer­curi fam­ily mem­bers. Some turn out the best egg­plant parmi­giana and cala­mari this side of the At­lantic, oth­ers fo­cus on cut­tingedge, nou­velle cui­sine.

In the world of Montreal chefs, Joe Mer­curi, 36, the chef owner of that swish restau­rant, Brontë, is a star. His first cousin Vito Maiolo, 42, is the owner of the su­perb Mundo Trat­to­ria. His sec­ond cousin, Michele (pro­nounced “Mick-ay-elly”) Mer­curi, 30, is the chef at XO Le Restau­rant, which earned four stars in th­ese pages last week. There’s also sec­ond cousin Mau­r­izio Mer­curi, 34, at the Jean-Talon Mar­ket’s chicest trat­to­ria, Basi, and his broth­ers (and Joe’s cousins) An­gelo, 28, and Raphaël, 35, at Vago on stylish Greene Ave. That’s just the short list. Talk to th­ese boys about the num­ber of chefs that dot their fam­ily tree, and even they get con­fused. “We don’t have a fam­ily tree,” An­gelo Mer­curi says, gig­gling. “It’s more like a big bush.”

The tal­ents of this cook­ing clan run deep, which begs the ques­tion: Why? Or, bet­ter yet, how?

“Every­one in this fam­ily be­came an ex­cel­lent cook be­cause of our roots,” says Vito Maiolo. “Joe’s mother As­sunta and my mother Quintina (maiden name, Mer­curi) are sis­ters from Cal­abria. Ev­ery re­gion has its par­tic­u­lar tra­di­tions and cul­tures, and there in the 1930s and ‘40s there were big fam­i­lies, and not ev­ery child could get a full ed­u­ca­tion.The men learned trades to get jobs to sup­port the fam­ily. Joe’s mom went to school to be­come a seam­stress. And my mother stayed at home to cook and feed every­one, learn­ing the recipes and tra­di­tions passed on from her mother and grand­mother.”

“It’s a huge fam­ily,” says Joe be­fore the din­ner ser­vice at Brontë. “Grow­ing up, we would of­ten get to­gether. There would be five or six fam­i­lies, 35 peo­ple at the ta­ble. It was loud, and there was good food all the time, ev­ery­thing home­made. My mother is an amaz­ing cook. Every­one made wine, so­pres­sata, caponata, grappa. Every­one had a gar­den out back. There was bread and pizza. We pick­led, we cured, we did ev­ery­thing.”

Maiolo re­mem­bers there al­ways be­ing peo­ple in the house. “Our en­ter­tain­ment was hav­ing the whole fam­ily over for a meal. In sum­mer, we would get to­gether 30, 40, 50 peo­ple to can toma­toes. In Jan­uary, it was pork sea­son, so we would make sausage and pro­sciutto. And the kids par­tic­i­pated in that. We all have a pas­sion for food.”

Maiolo, a self-taught chef who trav­els to Cal­abria yearly to sharpen his cook­ing skills, cred­its his best dishes to one per­son: “My recipes come from my mom. Without our moth­ers, we’re noth­ing.”

Says Joe: “We’d make the rounds to Vito’s house, to Raph’s house, to com­pare the sausage, toma­toes and home­made wine, be­cause the tem­per­a­tures in each of our home canti­nas were dif­fer­ent. There would be two kitchens: The one for show, and the one where the real work was done. And then the cantina, where the men sam­pled the wine.

“Food sur­rounds you when you’re Ital­ian. At nine in the morn­ing they would sit you down for a lunch of fried sausages with eggs, onions and pick­led veg­eta­bles.”

The La­chine cantina of Pasquale Mer­curi (fa­ther of Michele and also a re­tired cook who worked at restau­rants in­clud­ing Bocci in LaSalle, as well as Franco et Nino in Vau­dreuil) is an Ital­ian foodie par­adise. Hang­ing in the cold room the size of a walk-in closet are slabs of pancetta and whole prosci­ut­tos, four freshly made, one cur­ing in a bin of salt and about six aged spec­i­mens, the most cov­eted dat­ing back to 1976. There are rows of sausages like capi­colo and so­pres­sata, as well as jars of Cal­abrian red-pep­per paste (the se­cret of the so­pres­sata), olives, pick­led egg­plant and bar­rels of both home­made wine made from grapes grown on the prop­erty. There are enough jars of toma­toes to sup­ply a busy trat­to­ria for a week.

As the cousins taste the silky slices of peach-coloured pro­sciutto and lightly spiced, melt­ing capi­colo, it’s ob­vi­ous the depth of their food knowl­edge goes be­yond sim­ply help­ing with fam­ily meals.

“Be­cause our par­ents didn’t speak English or French,” Maiolo says, “they had to bring us along to stores like IGA so we could speak for them. That’s how we learned about the dif­fer­ent cuts of meat they wanted, pro­duce and veg­eta­bles. We were al­ways tag­ging along. Of course we had no choice.”

As Joe says: “They put you to work. I spent a lot of time in my child­hood turn­ing the han­dle on the sausage ma­chine. The tra­di­tion is en­grained in us.”

Work is some­thing the Mer­curis have never shied away from. Mau­r­izio cred­its his cook­ing ca­reer to five un­cles. “When they came to Montreal, they all started wash­ing dishes, and then they all ended up own­ing restau­rants. My un­cle, Natale di Fazio, was a chef and part­ner at An­gelo Il Cac­cia­tore down­town, and I started work­ing in his kitchen with my broth­ers when we were about eight or nine.

“I was cook­ing by the time I was 15, and I opened my first restau­rant when I was 18 called Casa Michelan­gelo. I loved the whole am­bi­ence of the restau­rant scene. My teacher was Natale, who made his name when Lu­ciano Pavarotti ate at An­gelo Il Cac­cia­tore and said my un­cle’s pasta was the best he ever tasted. At that time, if I ap­plied for a job at any Ital­ian restau­rant and said I had learned from Natale, they hired me right on the spot.”

Maiolo, who started work­ing at a snack bar in La­chine at 12 and at Casa Cac­cia­tore in Lit­tle Italy at 13, adds: “This is what we were good at, what we liked, and what we knew. The boys saw more of the busi­ness as­pect of it, the op­por­tu­nity here in Canada. We were at the right place at the right time. We took our cul­ture and made a busi­ness of it.”

Says Joe Mer­curi: “We’re pas­sion­ate, fiery peo­ple who love the action and drama of the restau­rant busi­ness. Ital­ians in­vented drama.”

Joe be­gan work­ing wash­ing dishes at Il For­netto in La­chine when he was 14. “We all started as dish­wash­ers and bus­boys,” he says.

Mau­r­izio re­mem­bers Joe as a bus­boy: “I fig­ured he’d be a waiter one day. But then he started work­ing at Mediter­ra­neo and Cube and sud­denly he’s this tal­ented chef. Now I call him for ad­vice.”

Joe and Michele are the only two fam­ily mem­bers who at­tended cook­ing school (Michele the In­sti­tut de Tourisme et d’Hôtel­lerie du Que­bec and Joe at River­side Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute). Un­like their cousins’ tra­di­tional Ital- ian fare, Joe and Michele’s cui­sine would more ac­cu­rately be de­scribed as French with an Ital­ian in­flu­ence.

Michele Mer­curi gives the lion’s share of credit for his ca­reer to cousin Joe: “Joe had a big in­flu­ence on me. We worked to­gether for 15 years at Lucca, Cube and then Brontë. He was al­ways try­ing to be bet­ter and dif­fer­ent.”

Al­though all the Mer­curi chefs en­joy eat­ing other foods (es­pe­cially Sichuan), Joe was the first to ex­per­i­ment be­yond the fam­ily cook­ing tra­di­tions: At 18, he made soba noo­dles to add to the tra­di­tional Ital­ian Christ­mas din­ner one year.

“When I was young, I wanted to try mak­ing Chi­nese and Ja­panese food, and my fam­ily liked the creative as­pect of that cook­ing,” he says. “I used to pick wild net­tles and arugula in fields near our house in La­chine with my grand­fa­ther, and I still love search­ing for new in­gre­di­ents. I got my mother to grow some Asian greens in her gar­den, which she pre­pares Ital­ian-style, fried in olive oil with gar­lic, an­chovies and salt. It’s de­li­cious!”

Adds Michele: “We love Span­ish and French cui­sine, too, but Ital­ian prod­ucts like rice, oils, greens and fruit top all oth­ers. We eat sim­ply, but ev­ery­thing is from the land. I never had a back­yard. It wasall­gar­den.”

And the next gen­er­a­tion ap­pears to be car­ry­ing on the tra­di­tion. “My son reads cook­books with me,” says Joe Mer­curi of his three-year old, Cruz. “He can name all the in­gre­di­ents and helps me with mise-en-place when I cook.”

Would Joe like to see his son be­come a chef ? “If it will make him happy, I’m fine with it. I never had any pres­sure to cook from my fam­ily.

“When I cook at home with my mother, it’s fiery be­cause it’s her kitchen. But she won’t cook with me at my restau­rant. My mother sees me work­ing on the line, she tells me to get a real job, a ca­reer where I can sit down be­hind a desk, take hol­i­days and re­lax. She’s been on her feet all her life. She wants it to be bet­ter for us.”

JOHN MAHONEY THE GAZETTE

The Mercuri men among the cur­ing meat in Pasquale Mercuri’s cold-room cantina in the base­ment of his La­chine home. In front is Pasquale Mercuri, and, from left: Joe Mercuri (with son Cruz) of Brontë, Michele (“Mike”) Mercuri (Pasquale’s son) of XO Le...

PIERRE OBENDRAUF THE GAZETTE

At Brontë, Joe Mercuri with the Li­mon­cel­lo­cured At­lantic salmon.

PIERRE OBENDRAUF THE GAZETTE

At Mundo Trat­to­ria, Quintina Mercuri and son Vito Maiolo ( both sit­ting), Francesca Maiolo and Pasquale Maiolo.

VINCENZO D’ALTO THE GAZETTE

At Basi, Mau­r­izio Mercuri and his wife, Lynn.

JOHN MAHONEY THE GAZETTE

In the base­ment of his La­chine home, Pasquale Mercuri (left) serves his home-cured pro­sciutto to Joe Mercuri (from left) his wife, Désireé Draca, son Cruz, Mau­r­izio Mercuri, Pasquale’s wife, Vin­cenza, and son Michele, An­gelo Mercuri and Stefano...

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