In our series ICONIC, we profile leaders in the industry, people who have transformed food and restaurants in the city. Folks that have helped make Toronto a vibrant, world-class dining destination.
Janet Zuccarini is one of the leading restaurateurs in the city, and one of just a handful of women. Her company, Gusto 54 Restaurant Group, is home to her three well-renowned restaurants (and which by the way, all still boast lineups): Trattoria Nervosa (celebrating 20 years in 2016), Gusto 101, and Pai, in addition to booming businesses Gusto 54 Catering and Commissary. You’d think that would suffice, be more than most people would want to take on. Nope. She has five more restaurants opening by 2018.
Zuccarini is filled with boundless passion for the industry and a fire that drives her to strive for more
This was likely thanks to her early start in the biz.
In the beginning
"I started working for my father at age 12 selling espresso machines. I would sell to restaurants and hotels when I was 12, 13, and 14."
Her father was the first to bring espresso machines to Canada. Zuccarini soon added other restaurant equipment to her roster.
"I saw the restaurant business from the business side. I saw whether it would have success or not." She says she has
"Intuition and business feel for location and what they're doing. If I have a strength, that's what I have."
These important entrepreneurial lessons ingrained at a young age set the path for an accidental career in restaurants. But first: school.
At the age of 18, she moved to Italy for university and stayed eight years. Never one to rest on her laurels, she completed her MBA.
"That’s why I'm here 20 years later," she says. The hard and risky restaurant industry had nothing on this warrior. With the combination of her fierce passion for food and the solid backing of studying business - she was able to come at the field with a unique perspective. She also knew she wanted to work for herself.
While in Italy, Zuccarini cooked often, frequenting the local market for ingredients. Inviting friends over to share the meal, they insisted her food was restaurant-worthy. "You should open a restaurant," was a constant refrain.
"I had a knack for cooking, a knack for getting really great ingredients." She was able to create a sumptuous, memorable meal with simple, fresh ingredients. "There is such goodness in great product; the heart of Italian cooking." She says, "I was falling in love with food. Italian food."
As luck would have it, Zuccarini had to fly back to Toronto for a wedding. In Yorkville at Salon Daniel, getting her hair done, she noticed a few guys opening a restaurant a couple of doors down at the corner of Yorkville and Bellair.
"It’s a long story,” she says with a smile. But the gist is - it was sold to Cafe JoJo's and they asked her to become a partner.
"Two weeks later, I signed on and ended up staying here."
While it may have seemingly fallen into her lap, she used her sharply honed intuition in accepting the deal.
"It was the right idea, right location." Cafe Nervosa as it was known back then (and not a casual restaurant, mind you), was brought to life by Zuccarini.
She immediately bought them out. But it was not all glory days. In fact, it was anything but in the beginning. The restaurant boasted a sommelier, cigar lounge upstairs, and live music Thursday to Saturday, with three different acts.
"It was myself and one chef. I was the bookkeeper, bartender… I would leave at 3am. I only had Mondays off." She went on just four hours sleep for four-and-a-half years. She went without a paycheck to ensure she could pay staff and suppliers.
"It takes you time to really see money," she says. “"It was three years before we made money. Even with lineups, it was hard to get ahead financially."
Zuccarini decided to "embrace partnership, and designed it the way I wanted." Instead of having to do it all herself, she brought in front of house people and hired a bookkeeper.
"I choose people within the company to offload my positions to. I could sit on top of the business to do it, instead of inside it."
After four-and-a-half years, "I wanted more quality of life, so I set my sights on owning property – the key to making money. I concentrated on saving money to buy real estate. This was almost more important than the restaurant itself, for longtime security."
The restaurant was initially successful because of its location. "This location was so important to business," she says.
Knowing she had something worth holding onto, "I lived below my means, saved money, and leased it for ten years." She vowed not to renew, and "own it, whatever it takes."
Then the negotiations started. The landlord kept raising the amount and "Everyone tried to talk me out of it," she says. She told naysayers, "You guys don't see the future." She "way overpaid" and bought the building in 2006.
To all the cynics and pessimists she says, "I’m being offered four times what I paid. Yes, I did overpay, but it was a weight off my shoulders and gave me a sense of security."
This hard-earned triumph has only fueled her passion and drive.
"I love this business. I am always thinking: How am I going to make money and how am I going to be here long."
So she made "riskier moves" – turning a former auto body shop into three-story Gusto 101, with a whopping 230 seats.
After 20 years of the studying business, "all my roots are really deep."
So it’s no surprise that Trattoria Nervosa is such a success over twenty years later. The Yorkville fixture feels like a neighbourhood restaurant, despite the flashy cars and luxe clothes crowding the area. The casual, comfortable vibe and affordable prices are just part of the appeal, and what compels people to tell Zuccarini again and again, "I love your place because it doesn't feel like Yorkville."
Yorkville can be intimidating, so stepping into Nervosa is like “"walking into an Italian home," she says. "We love our customers."
The crowd ranges from folks who live and/or work in the neighbourhood, tourists, families (kid-friendly) to the "ladies who lunch," crowd.
There are of course a host of celebrity fans - Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Jay-Z and Blue Ivy (who prefer the Juliet balcony at the front, with room for just 2-3) and Drake, "who’s a regular here" - to name just a few.
In addition to the energetic feel, Trattoria Nervosa’s crowd-pleasing menu boasts pretty classic Italian dishes.
Up until recently "I wrote the menu," Zuccarini says. "I cook. I am not a chef," she insists, but in fact she's a trained pizza chef, and the first Canadian female AVPN (Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana - True Neapolitan Pizza Association) in Naples, certified ten years ago.
Always trying to keep it relevant, the menu is constantly tweaked, and bigger changes are made twice a year.
"I get to travel a lot, often to L.A., New York City, and Italy." It was during a visit many years ago to a restaurant on the Hudson River many years ago that she had a kale salad. She introduced her famous Kale Salad at Trattoria Nervosa eight years ago, and went on to add it to the menu years later at Gusto 101 as well. "It has a life of its own," she says. Currently she sells about 40,000 kale salads a year, and there seems to be no end in sight. She also put octopus onto the menu years before it was trendy. Zuccarini recently introduced fresh pressed juices, and is on the hunt for what customers want, including the next "hot" veg.
But there are steadfast items that won’t budge including the Margherita Pizza, that’s been on since day one, and a real throwback from 20 years ago- Capellini ($15.99) with tomato sauce, sun-dried tomato, goat cheese, and basil. "It’s never coming off," Zuccarini says.
In the hands of such an expert and visionary, food here never feels staid – dishes have modern presentation, there’s much more to the menu than just pizza and pasta, and includes plenty of non-carb options.
Never content on sitting still, Zuccarini has been working for years on changes to the space. Built in the 1800s, the restaurant currently seats 120 over two floors, and sees 800-1,000 guests a day. The new space will be double the capacity, and in conjunction with architects Partisans, modern touches will be added around the yellow house, as seen in Italian and European designs. Construction is to start winter 2018.
With Trattoria Nervosa’s recent anniversary celebrating 20 years, what's to follow is just as exciting. In addition to her current four businesses, Zuccarini has five more opening by the end of 2018:
1. Kiin - healthier-focused, higher-end Thai with partners Jeff and Nuit Regular - February 2017
2.Felix in Venice, Los Angeles - February 2017
3. Same Same, with partners Jeff and Nuit Regular - currently under renovation,opening in a couple of months.
4. Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen – Summer 2017
5. Gusto 501 – Winter 2018
And she’s just getting started.
And stay tuned – we’ll have a closer look at Kiin and Same Same soon!