MANGIA BENE MID­TOWN

Grano owner Roberto Martella’s amaz­ing con­tri­bu­tion to food and cul­ture in our city

Richmond Hill Post - - Contents - by Jon Sufrin

Roberto Martella’s amaz­ing con­tri­bu­tion to the food and cul­ture in our city

In Novem­ber of last year, a siz­able cadre of Toronto’s most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple gath­ered at a sold-out din­ner to pay trib­ute to a mid­town le­gend. Held at Villa Colombo in North York, the event was at­tended by the likes of Rocco Rossi, Steve Paikin and Mayor John Tory, who tweeted that he was cel­e­brat­ing the guest of hon­our’s “many con­tri­bu­tions to din­ing and cul­ture in Toronto.”

Restau­ra­teurs typ­i­cally aren’t treated with such dis­tinc­tion, but the le­gend in ques­tion is Roberto Martella, co-owner of Yonge and Eglin­ton’s long-stand­ing Ital­ian restau­rant Grano. The im­pres­sive show of sup­port was a con­certed re­sponse to the stroke that al­most 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. 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 — Grano was a mix of all those things, and that was the in­ten­tion from the be­gin­ning.

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.

Martella opened Grano with his wife, Lu­cia Rug­giero-Martella, 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.

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 labour­in­ten­sive tomato sauce, which she’d leave sim­mer­ing on the stove all night long. Martella’s mother kick-started his culi­nary jour­ney, he says, even if he feels it’s a lit­tle over­played to ad­mit as much.

Fol­low­ing uni­ver­sity, he had an urge to travel, so he went to Ja­pan, even­tu­ally be­com­ing a roadie for a drum­ming group from Sado Is­land. He lived in Italy, too, and briefly in the U.K., bar­tend­ing or wait­ing at restau­rants to sa­ti­ate his ever-grow­ing 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. 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.

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.

At first, Grano was pri­mar­ily a bak­ery and deli, sell­ing bread, cheese, sa­lumi and other Ital­ian in­gre­di­ents, but it blos­somed quickly. Soon they had a steam ta­ble of­fer­ing lunch, fol­lowed by full-fledged din­ners. Martella worked front of house, while Rug­gieroMartella sud­denly found her­self in charge of a pro­fes­sional kitchen.

“She took to it very nat­u­rally,” Martella says. “Ul­ti­mately, she even sur­prised her­self.”

As Grano be­came pop­u­lar, it grew in size. The cou­ple ex­panded their restau­rant into three ad­ja­cent store­fronts. They lived up­stairs, too, grow­ing their fam­ily and their liv­ing space along­side their busi­ness, which also be­came a source of ten­sion.

“It’s an oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ard, I sup­pose,” Martella says.

Although other in­flu­en­tial Ital­ian restau­rants at the time played up glitz and glam­our, Grano was un­pre­ten­tious but in­tel­li­gent, ca­sual but so­phis­ti­cated.

It did not take long be­fore Grano be­came in­creas­ingly known for its book launches, lec­tures and other arts-re­lated events. Michael On­daatje be­came a reg­u­lar, as did Bob Rae.

“Grano was unique be­cause Roberto is a unique per­son,” says in­flu­en­tial Toronto restau­ra­teur Franco Prevedello, a long­time friend of Martella. “It was a com­mu­nity as much as it was a restau­rant. There was a lot of cul­ture there.”

Martella, it should be noted, made a point of pro­mot­ing mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism be­fore it was the cool thing to do, be­fore so­cial me­dia and the so­cial jus­tice move­ment. More re­cently, in 2014, he pub­licly called for Toronto res­i­dents to try to learn new lan­guages.

“Mono­lin­gual­ism can be cured,” he wrote in the Toronto Star, us­ing the same florid lan­guage with which he speaks. “An em­brac­ing of mul­ti­lin­gual­ism would move us for­ward on the pro­gres­sive arc that truly is Canada’s and pay homage to the world’s di­ver­sity which is our di­ver­sity too.”

That kind of open-mind­ed­ness, an em­brac­ing of the dif­fer­ences that unite peo­ple, be­came Grano’s essence.

Per­haps it’s no sur­prise, then, that in 2006 Martella won the Jane Ja­cobs Prize for en­rich­ing the cul­tural fab­ric of the city.

The heady cock­tail of el­e­ments that com­bined to make Grano what it was — good food, good dis­cus­sions and good vibes — paid off. Grano out­lived nu­mer­ous other lo­cal culi­nary in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing Cen­tro, Splen­dido and North 44.

Th­ese days, as Martella re­cov­ers, he re­mains just as cu­ri­ous as ever. He is get­ting to know his fel­low pa­tients at the hospi­tal and is learn­ing from them what he can. He’s keep­ing up on his lan­guages, of which he knows four: English, Ital­ian, French and Span­ish, plus a lit­tle Ja­panese. He’s work­ing on a lec­ture se­ries too.

He’d like to re­turn to Italy one day once he’s bet­ter. And he hopes the tra­di­tion of hos­pi­tal­ity will con­tinue where Grano once stood.

“It would make me happy if an­other restau­rant were to take it over,” he says.

Clock­wise from left: Roberto Martella and wife Lu­cia Rug­giero-Martella, Grano’s wel­com­ing store­front, Martella is cur­rently re­cov­er­ing at Bay­crest hospi­tal

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