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
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.”
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...
At Brontë, Joe Mercuri with the Limoncellocured Atlantic salmon.
At Mundo Trattoria, Quintina Mercuri and son Vito Maiolo ( both sitting), Francesca Maiolo and Pasquale Maiolo.
At Basi, Maurizio Mercuri and his wife, Lynn.
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...