There’s an old Italian proverb, “A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine.” If you’ve ever spent more than a moment or two with the Gregorini family who own four restaurants in Sudbury, you’ll soon come to learn fine wine is a regular and essential part of any visit. Wine is as expected (and welcomed) as a handshake and kiss on each cheek. It’s all just part of the equation.
The Gregorini family has lived in Sudbury for a relatively short time and has achieved “the Canadian Dream.” Patriarch Sirio Gregorini came to this country as a teenager. The family steel company has flourished over the decades. And the four popular restaurants operated by his sons have become woven into the heart of Sudbury’s restaurant scene with each winning awards, blazing trails, setting trends, and most of all thriving and surviving. Walking through the front doors of Ristorante Verdicchio, off Kelly Lake Rd., is like stepping into another world. The restaurant’s Umbrian decor is classic, antique inspired, uncluttered and simple.
Matriarch Willie Gregorini, who immigrated to Canada from Italy when she was 11, has a magnetic smile and welcoming warmth and charm unique to Italian mothers. Her son and business partner Mark, still a young man at age 36, boasts an incredible knowledge of food and wine. They make their hungry patrons feel entirely at home, knowing their chef and staff will ensure they leave well fed, watered and anxiously waiting for their next trip through the authentic Italian menu.
Despite the awards and accolades proudly displayed on the restaurant’s wall, success didn’t come right away. In fact, it took years.
It happened by accident 15 years ago. The family owned a building and one of the tenants who had a café gave notice. Call it a challenge, call it boredom-some may even call it crazy-”but the family, with less than even a smidge of experience, dove headfirst into the restaurant business. “What you see today is nothing like what we began with,” says Willie.
“We were small, we were serving pasta, sandwiches and had just a few wines on the menu. We had this little trattoria, but it soon became at lot more than a hobby.” And as quickly as Willie, sons Mark and Rob, and daughter in-law Teri, who is married to eldest brother Michael, entered the business, they expanded.
“None of us, except for Mark, had any experience with restaurants, but what we all had was passion,” explains Willie. “Each of us wanted to grow, at first it wasn’t even intentional. Each of us just shared a real love of food, and of feeding people. Rob would host…he was a natural. The rest of us all were deeply involved with the cooking, menus and wine selection.” Rob, 41, says, “We come from a family where cooking and eating are a huge part of our every day life.
“We all learn from each other. Recipes, styles and a passion for food were inherited from our parents and grandparents. We learned how to cook great food and how to make eating a great time. By 1999 the restaurant had expanded again and Ristorante Verdicchio found its niche.
Mark. “I had gone to Italy and started working throughout regions like Umbria and Le Marche. There I learned to really understand how each region’s cuisine is completely diverse from the next. At the Slow Food Master of Italian Regional Cooking School in Jesi, Italy, Mark was immersed in the study of traditional and innovative Italian cuisine. “Seasonings, herbs, preparations, cooking method…each would vary from region to region depending on what the land they lived on gave them to use, says Mark. With that, Verdicchio’s took a bold step-slow food. Slow food is a movement started in Italy in the 1980s as a reaction to fast food. It religiously follows a doctrine that insists a meal be enjoyed as an experience.
“low food means that when you eat, you take in tradition, you savour what is available locally and you take the time to enjoy your food,” explains Willie.
“When you come to our restaurant, it is like coming to our home. When you dine at our table you lose the rush, but the freshness, quality and atmosphere make your night an event and a meal you won’t soon forget.”
With awards for wine and food (and even a prestigious recognition for Gregorinis’ cherished risotto), the philosophy has elevated Ristorante Verdicchio beyond local legend into a playing field competing with fine dining establishments across Canada and around the world.
The story, however, doesn’t end there. Children grow up. Ask any mother-sons are almost naturally inclined to wander, to spread their wings and search out on their own.
In the early winter of 2001, Rob did just that. Despite the bar stool critics and the business conservative cynics, he opened Respect Is Burning Supperclub on Durham St. And just what is a supperclub? “It’s a living room and not a dining room,” is the first thing Rob will tell you. “I want to bring people together for a good time. Quality food, great drinks make it happen. It’s not a restaurant-it’s a lifestyle space.”
Combining the rustic Italian cooking styles Rob learned from his mother and grandmother-with a distinct Indian influence he picked up from his wife, Minnie, Respect Is Burning is hip, trendy and cool.
Respect, also sometimes known as RIB, offers up what Rob describes as Italian soul food. But it’s not just the food that has made him a downtown sensation.
“I want anyone coming in here to be my guest. Whether you are here on business, a date, a vacation or out for a family meal, I want you to have an ultimate experience.”
The atmosphere at Respect is Burning is an eclectic mix of retro and eccentric décor. Anyone who comes here has an instant feeling of being a little bit hip, a little bit cool and part of the crowd. “My rule,” says Rob, “is that we have a ‘no snob quotient.’ You come to my restaurant and you fit in. You’re treated like gold and you leave knowing you had a great time. No pomp, no ceremony, even the checkered tablecloths let the most serious people relax and take the time to enjoy themselves.”
Once seen as a dreamer, Rob’s vision has become reality. Packed at lunch, packed at dinner and busy hosting parties, Respect Is Burning is now one of the most sought after caterers in Sudbury. “We offer quality,” insists Rob. “Nothing here is frozen, prepackaged or processed.”
Respect Is Burning is the anti-big-box, anti-big chain kind of establishment.
“We’re unique and I’m proud of it,” says Rob. “If you are coming to Sudbury, we’re offering people the best meal and time they can get, and an experience they won’t find from a franchise.” And the trend of success hasn’t stopped there. Last year, Rob and Mini opened Vespa Panini at Riverside and Regent streets. It specializes in lunches and it has taken Sudbury by storm. With its off-the-wall sandwiches, it leaves those seeking a quick fix at lunch tremendously satisfied.
Similarly, Mark has taken some time away from managing the day-to-day operations at Verdicchio’s to embark on another quest. Last fall he and his wife, Laura, bought Frank’s Delicatessen, a piece of Sudbury’s history, located a block from his brother’s place on Durham St.
“We took over Frank’s and made sure it never closed,” says Mark. “I think it was mostly because I didn’t want to see it close - it had been around for so long and had so much history that I wanted to preserve it.”
Opened since the 1940s, Frank’s is a delicatessen in the very sense of the word, serving up high quality classic deli fair - pastrami on rye, Montréal smoked meat sandwiches, footlong hot dogs. Mark has added new dishes that will appeal to the health conscious and modern tastes.
Willie Gregorini couldn’t be prouder of her family’s success. Out of an idea hatched 15 years ago, Mark and Rob have gone on to succeed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, each offering contrasting menus, atmospheres and approaches to business. An unbreakable dedication to a long-standing family tradition that a guest should be considered a member of the family, means the Gregorinis have redefined quality, comfort and a great experience for anyone who wishes to eat and spill wine in Sudbury.
For the Gregorinis, time, chance and dedication has proven a family that dines together certainly does stay together.