Sugo chef Angelo Contrada on how food is a family affair
'You’re coming to eat at my house, I don’t want you to leave hungry'
When chef Angelo Contrada's grandparents came to Calgary from Italy, his grandmother hated it.
"She was gone in six weeks," he told me over cappuccino spiked with sambuca — his daily ritual at Sugo, his Inglewood restaurant.
But his grandfather stayed for a year, he said, to get the kids settled and the paperwork done, before going back home.
Angelo was born and raised in Victoria park, in a row of old Victorian-style houses with sprawling yards that backed onto each other. He and his cousins and friends would navigate through the back yard gardens and over the fences to visit each other.
When his three uncles and two aunts came from Italy to join the family, they lived with them. The busy home kitchen of his childhood was where Angelo learned to love cooking.
"Every night it's like hey, dad's cooking or mom's cooking. There were lots of hands in the kitchen," Angelo says. "And there isn't one person or three or four eating — the family used to get together and it would be my aunt, my uncle, my other aunt, my other uncle — we had this big, big wood table with like 16 chairs around it, and that's what we grew up with."
He leaned back and grinned as he conjured memories of family meals and homemade pasta.
"I remember dad making gnocchi. It was like, it's Sunday, dad's making gnocchi today. So we all got up and helped," he said. "Whatever he had us do was little stuff, but it was a big deal, because we're having gnocchi. We'd all sit around that big table with big pots of water, lots of gnocchi, fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella, nice shaved Parm on top. That was the dream."
Decades later, in the early '90s, Angelo opened up Gnocchi's by the Stampede grounds, and his mom and dad made their gnocchi for the restaurant. Angelo's mother, Antoinetta, cooked for 30 years in restaurants around Calgary, starting at an Italian-inspired steakhouse in 1971 and retiring in 2001, at the same time Angelo and his business partner, Jessie, opened Sugo in Inglewood.
"Our families have known each other since before he and I were born," Angelo says of his now 14-year business partner. "Jessie's father and my uncles were best friends, and his grandmother and grandfather lived in Vic park and took care of me when I was a baby. My mom used to drop me off at Jessie's grandma's house when my parents went to work, and my dad would come home at five and pick me up."
Jessie worked in banking while moonlighting in his first job as a server at Gnocchi's (which is now closed), and the two decided early on that they wanted to open their own eatery together.
"We drove around all the time looking for a spot," Angelo says. "One day we were driving and we saw a For Lease sign on this new building. It was perfect, we're on the right block, on the sunny side of the street. There was Recordland, there was us, Rouge had just opened a year before, Kane's Harley-Davidson was here and Spolumbos was the anchor, but that was pretty much it."
It was the night before that the two decided it would be called Sugo, Italian for sauce.
"What we wanted to do was just invite people in and say, this is what we have tonight," Angelo says. "But we didn't do it at first, we were too scared. People would have thought we were nuts. Fourteen years ago, I think we would have been closing our doors."
Years later, the space above Sugo that previously housed Nectar Desserts became available, and they opened Without Papers, a more casual pizza restaurant.
This July will mark 40 years that Angelo has worked and cooked in Calgary restaurant kitchens. His father, Michelangelo, still grows the beautiful tomatoes and fresh basil they use at Sugo and WOP in the garden and greenhouse in his south-facing backyard in Renfrew.
"Have you seen my Dad's basil plants?" Angelo asks of the 150 or so he nurtures for the restaurant. "Some of the leaves are as big as my hand. For my dad, it's the love. That's his solace. He's 81 years old and he still comes here every day. He puts in about five hours a day now, doing whatever needs to be done, whether it's trimming lamb or shelling peas or fixing a lamp."
Though they haven't advertised themselves as such, Sugo has always been a farm(and back yard)-to-table restaurant, and Angelo plans to focus even more on bringing the simple Italian meals of his childhood to the menu.
Last weekend, Jessie finished building planter boxes in his own front and back yards to supplement Angelo's father's and uncles' harvest with greens, beets, carrots, peas, fava beans and mint. Every year in the late summer and fall, Angelo's aunts and uncles help him put up tomatoes at their peak, including long Italian romas brought from the Okanagan, simmering and pureeing them to pack in jars with sprigs of fresh basil to last through the winter.
"This is what I don't let go of," he says. "It's the way I was brought up."
They make jams, preserves, and spicy pickled peppers using his dad's recipe. And Angelo is back to spending more time making pasta from scratch.
"I want to take Sugo back to simple, real Italian food," he says. "This is real. This is beautiful. It's what we do at our house. You're coming to eat at my house, I don't want you to leave hungry."