Independent Restaurateur of the Year: Janet Zuccarini

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Photo by Nick Wong

Twenty-some years ago, Janet Zuccarini was unexpectedly faced with an opportunity to take over a prime restaurant location in downtown Toronto — an opportunity that ultimately led her to move back to her native city, launched her career as a restaurateur and laid the foundation for the Gusto 54 Restaurant Group.

Despite opening her first restaurant, Cafe Nervosa (later renamed Trattoria Nervosa), in 1996, Zuccarini officially launched the restaurant group — of which she is owner and CEO — in 2015 to encompass her growing roster of restaurant and hospitality ventures. Gusto 54’s portfolio currently includes five Toronto restaurants (including two with partners Jeff and Nuit Regular), a catering and commissary division and a recent expansion into the U.S. market with the opening of a restaurant in Venice, Calif. The company, which boasts more than 400 employees, recorded gross revenues of approximately $23.7 million in 2016. As the daughter of an equipment importer who supplied foodservice operations with espresso machines and other equipment, Zuccarini had one foot in the restaurant industry at a young age. However, she never thought this was the industry she would end up in.

It was while visiting Toronto for a friend’s wedding — after moving to Italy where she received an MBA from Boston University in Rome — that her entrepreneurial journey began. “I wasn’t planning on moving back to Toronto, but that location [in Yorkville] became available and [I met with] my two partners…literally two weeks later, I was in the restaurant business,” she recalls. “It fell in my lap and, at that moment, I didn’t realize that this is absolutely my passion. I am really fortunate. I always knew I would work for myself, but I didn’t know what that [business] would be.”

When Trattoria Nervosa — which focuses on home-cooked Southern Italian food — launched, Zuccarini had two partners and was leasing the space. Over the course of the restaurant’s first five years of operation, she bought out her two partners and began focusing on saving enough money to purchase the building that housed the restaurant when its 10-year lease ended. “I thought it was, strategically, a very important move,” she explains. “People said I was crazy…I bought it over market value but, at that point, I felt secure — that’s when I started to be open to the idea of ‘what’s next?’”

The Yorkville restaurant, which boasts 75 seats plus a 45-seat patio, remained her sole focus until 2012, when she opened another Italian concept in Toronto’s King West neighbourhood — Gusto 101. And, increasingly rapid growth continued thereafter. “As a woman, I will confess that I was making room in my life to get married and have kids. When I saw that things were maybe not going that way, that gave me more energy to put towards the business,” Zuccarini explains. “Gusto 101 was a test. When we opened and it was successful, my confidence grew.”

She soon partnered with the Regulars to open Pai Northern Thai Kitchen in 2014; launched Gusto 54’s Catering and Commissary Kitchen, coinciding with the launch of the restaurant group, in 2015; and an online boutique under the Gusto 54 banner went live in 2016. Gusto 54 has seen several further additions over the course of the last year, including its second collaboration with Jeff and Nuit Regular (Kiin); the group’s acclaimed entry into the L.A. dining scene (Felix Trattoria); and the November launch of Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen. This year also marked Zuccarini’s debut as a judge on Food Network’s Top Chef Canada.

“It’s only made possible because of the incredible team that I have behind me now. My life has gotten easier,” says Zuccarini, noting that the formation of Gusto 54 Restaurant Group really allowed for this level of growth. “I might be the visionary — figure out the concept, the chef and what the design is going to be like — then I have an entire team I can pass the ball over to. They then descend on it and plug in all of our systems and procedures. We [now] have a whole protocol for opening a restaurant and it gets easier every time.”

Opening in L.A. was a bit of a gamble, but the 100-seat Felix Trattoria is already a roaring success, counting celebrities such as Cameron Diaz and Gwyneth Paltrow among its regular patrons. It has collected numerous accolades — ranking at the top of a number of best-new-restaurant lists for the city and even the U.S. as a whole.

“I had to create a parallel life [in L.A.],” says Zuccarini. “Toronto is easy to build on — we have our infrastructure already set. We had to assemble a whole new team out there.” This team includes chef Evan Funke — a maestro of handmade pasta. “I wasn’t going to go [to L.A.] and only find a chef; it had to be somebody who already had a following,” notes Zuccarini. “I couldn’t just go in there as this Canadian woman and open up a restaurant in L.A. — it had to be a triple-A address with a triple-A chef.”

The menu at Felix features focaccia with sea salt and rosemary; squash blossoms stuffed with fior di latte and green garlic; pizzas; and, of course, pastas, such as Trofie with pesto genovese and pecorino stagionato and gnocchetti riposo with oxtail ragu and mozzarella.

Despite a variety of concepts, Zuccarini’s vision of creating transporting dining experiences is realized in each of Gusto 54’s restaurants. And, it’s this mandate that will continue to shape and tie together the company’s future endeavours. “I want to keep moving forward in all aspects of the business — food, decor, service, music — we want [to offer] the full package,” the restaurateur explains.

This package also includes Gusto 54’s culture, which focuses on developing its employees and leaders within the company and being an active member of the communities that support it. The company has put a focus on feeding and educating children and impoverished communities through campaigns such as Margherita Mondays, which donates $1 from the sale of Margherita Pizzas and Margarita cocktails to Breakfast for Learning and St. Paul’s Catholic School. It also donates funds to organizations such as the Children’s Aid Society, Food for the Poor Canada and the Canadian Red Cross.

With her latest concept, Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen, newly launched in November, Zuccarini plans to turn her attention to expanding in L.A. However, Torontonians can still look forward to new projects already in various stages of planning, including the long-awaited Gusto 501 and an extension of Pai, which goes by the working title Same Same. “I feel very strongly that the next move for us as a company will be moving into the fast-casual [market],” Zuccarini says. “We are quickly getting a name for Italian food and pasta in L.A. and North America. I would like to capitalize on the great press that we have been getting and the talent of Evan Funke and turn it into something that has the potential to scale much more easily.”

Despite Gusto 54’s expanding footprint, and thanks to her head-office team, Zuccarini remains free to revel in her passions, including travel and divining the company’s path into the future. “I can kind of work from anywhere in the world right now — I have a lot of freedom. And, I hate to say it, but ‘hashtag-blessed.’”