Powerhouse restaurateur Janet Zuccarini dishes on T.O. food scene


Janet Zuccarini (second from right) is behind some of Toronto’s biggest restaurants

© Food Network Canada

In this town, your average restaurant won’t see its eighth birthday. 

“I think a healthy dose of paranoia in business is a good thing,” says Janet Zuccarini, one of Top Chef Canada’s newest resident judges, while reflecting on her two decades as a restaurateur. 

Since opening Trattoria Nervosa in 1996, Zuccarini has refused to let her Yorkville stalwart go stale. 

“It helps to have a Triple A location, and the corner of Yorkville and Bellair is just that,” says Zuccarini. Location aside, she’s not content to just let her businesses sit. 

“I believe in never resting on your laurels,” says Zuccarini, who has been at the grind since middle school, when she staffed the shop at her father’s eponymous espresso machine importing company.

“After 20 years of beating up on that building — we see between 800 to 1,000 customers a day in that small house — it’s just time to renovate,” says Zuccarini of her Yorkville restaurant. 

For most, a slap of freshening paint would suffice. Not so for this entrepreneur. She’s doubling the size of the restaurant with a bold new addition. 

“I am working with Partisans architecture firm, where the average age in the company is 27. They have ambitious ideas,” she says, while remaining reluctant to give up too many particulars. 

Whatever the manifestation of the hyper-modern addition, heritage fanatics needn’t fret: the Victorian cottage will remain, as will the menu staples. The kale salad — Toronto’s first according to Zuccarini — is there to stay.

Although Zuccarini might not be a household name (yet!), any Chowhound junkies worth their salt know about this pillar of the Toronto food scene. Apart from tossing kale before it was cool, Zuccarini comes from a family of food mavericks. Her father was the first espresso pusher in Toronto in the ’50s. Before he started importing Italian machines, the only brew in town was watery drip coffee. You have him to thank for your five-dollar-a-day cappuccino habit.

Zuccarini may have inherited her entrepreneurial bent from her father, but she honed it in Rome — where she obtained her MBA — while scooting around town on her Motorino and feasting on fantastic Roman foods that she would later recreate in Toronto. 

During this period, she also  started cooking for herself. 

“I had the opportunity to cook with outstanding ingredients from the farmers’ market and small neighbourhood stores close to my home in Rome,” she says. “This is when a true love affair with food and eating well really solidified.”

Her business savvy is evident with purchases like Gusto 101. She picked up a mechanic’s shop on King West for a song after the 2008 crash. Now, the ex-industrial site anchors one of Toronto’s buzziest dining strips. 

Today, the self-made businesswoman — who started her career working 15-hour days helping bookkeeping and sweeping at Nervosa — is the owner of a 320-person food empire.

“By the end of the year there will be 500 [employees],” reports Zuccarini, currently in the throes of doubling her restaurant portfolio. 

Toronto will see the addition of a second Gusto, two Pai spinoffs and a Jamaican joint called Chubby’s, which is set to open this June. This March, Zuccarini’s foray into the American market is slated to open its doors. Felix, her hyper-local Italian spot in the Venice neighbourhood of Los Angeles, is helmed by chef about town Evan Funke.

Between the expansions, spinoffs and openings, Zuccarini somehow found time this year to make her grand return to the small screen as a judge on Top Chef Canada: All Stars, where star chefs from seasons past come together to compete.

“I was a child actress and had a lot of experience in front of the camera; however, I am not sure that helped me with the show,” says Zuccarini nonchalantly, as if being a child actor was akin to being a Girl Guide. 

Before she entered elementary school, Zuccarini had filmed over 40 commercials (including some for Colgate and KFC), a miniseries and a movie. 

According to Zuccarini, after “word got out that a four-year-old worked 12 hours a day without complaining,” she got booked a lot. “This was before strict union laws came into effect,” she says with a laugh.

As both a child and as an adult, Zuccarini never sought out fame. As a tot, her mom pushed her in front of the camera. Last year, when Top Chef Canada’s producers were seeking out fresh blood to help reboot the series (now in its fifth season), Zuccarini’s name kept popping up. A slam dunk of a screen test later, Zuccarini was appointed one of the show’s new resident judges alongside food critic Chris Nuttall-Smith.

Although the camera was familiar for Zuccarini, she found the continuous filming style of reality TV challenging. 

“As an actress/actor, you take on characters, whereas on a show like Top Chef, I just had to be an honest version of myself, which, as funny as it sounds, can be more challenging,” she says. 

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the show, though, was Zuccarini shedding her personal ties to some of the contestants, as she had to judge them based on their most recent dishes. 

“As judges, we could never look back at past performance, which made it cutthroat,” Zuccarini says. 

But as any Top Chef fan knows, you might have the cooking chops, but all it takes is one kitchen mishap to get you booted. 

Top Chef Canada: All Stars debuts on Food Network Canada, April 2 at 10 p.m.

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