by Daniele Tomelleri

by Natalia Manzocco

An Italian tradition

When Tony Loschiavo’s mother emigrated from Calabria to Canada in 1965, she stashed seeds for tomatoes, chili peppers, green beans and cucumbers—produced from plants that once grew in her grandparents’ garden—in her suitcase.

Decades later, diners can taste veggies grown from those same seeds at Loschiavo’s north-end Toronto restaurant, Paese, which operates a vegetable garden just a block away.

Growing ingredients—especially in Toronto, where the winters are punishing and garden space is nearly nonexistent—is too much of a hassle for most restaurants.

But Loschiavo says it’s simply what he’s accustomed to. “My parents ate that way.We picked our produce and ate it the same day,” he says. “Really, nothing is nicer than a tomato that has never been refrigerated.”

Farm-to-table, the practice of sourcing ingredients based on what’s in season and available locally, has become a driving trend in North American restaurants.

But before eating seasonally became hip, living off the land was a means of survival for countless Italian households. Families would grow what they needed, preserving the excess by canning and pickling for the colder months.

Restaurants dig in

In Toronto and Montreal, a handful of Italian restaurants are fighting to keep that tradition alive by serving predominantly locally grown food —with some, like Paese and Toronto’s Local Kitchen and Bar, even maintaining their own gardens.

Paese’s 3,500-square-foot garden, situated in the backyard of a nearby house owned by the restaurant’s management, grows about 40 different species of vegetables, fruits and herbs.

Paese’s staff manages the garden, which Loschiavo says is a great way to educate cooks about what goes into growing produce, as well as teaching patrons about how a quality ingredient should taste. “When you’re growing lettuce, radicchio, endive, and it’s still warm from the sun, and you turn it into a salad and serve it, it really has a different impact—both on the client and on the cook who’s preparing it,” Loschiavo says.

Meanwhile, Parkdale-based Local maintains a half-acre farm in the township of King, Ontario, about an hour north of the downtown core. “My grandparents were farmers in Italy, and my dad was a farmer before he immigrated to Canada, so that tradition just carried on,” says Michael Sangregorio, who co-owns the restaurant and oversees Local’s garden.

On top of staples like tomatoes, garlic, arugula and radicchio, Local also keeps a “research section” in the garden, where they’ll experiment with new seeds. “We’re on a busy street, and this area is overwhelming, so it can be nice to go out there three days a week,” Sangregorio says. “I think the food is better because of it.”

Taste the difference

Flavour, naturally, is a top factor for locally-minded restaurateurs. “You can’t compare—it’s always better when it’s grown next door,” says Luca Cianciulli, owner-chef of Moccione, which opened in Montreal’s Villeray neighbourhood in December. “But the ethical and environmental impacts are there—and economical ones too. We want to stimulate our economy as much as possible.”

To that end, Cianciulli sources mushrooms from a Montreal grower, mozzarella from Quebec and seafood from New Brunswick. But he draws the line at growing ingredients himself, citing the extra cost of land and labour. “We’re still in a city where the prices at restaurants aren’t high enough to justify that kind of expense,” he says. “I think when people start accepting that you have to pay for good-quality and homegrown food, it might become more realistic.”

Making it last

On top of the labour of gardening, restaurants also need to plan ahead for the leaner seasons. Both Local and Paese preserve their own ingredients for the winter, a practice Cianciulli hopes to begin as Moccione enters its first summer.

Because of this, their menus change dramatically with the seasons—a departure from most Italian joints, where you’ll find caprese salads on the menu year-round.

Right now, Cianciulli says Moccione’s menu is mainly protein-based, with the only tomato being a touch of puree in the bolognese: “I don’t have the heart to buy a tomato right now,” he says.

Sangregorio admits sourcing is “a challenge” between November and March: “Based on our seasonality, it’s never as good as it’s going to be in the summer months.” During the winter, they fall back on food they grew and preserved, add more root vegetables to the menu and occasionally buy from a greenhouse.

But the wait, he says, is worth it

“During tomato season, we have something on the menu titled ‘The Best Damn Tomatoes You’ll Ever Eat’. People try it and they’re blown away,” Sangregorio says. “If you’re ever at an Italian restaurant in the wintertime, and they have a caprese salad on the menu, you should ask yourself why. That’s not the philosophy of Italian food.”