Corso Italia for the (restaurant) win!
In the midst of a pandemic, how one owner paid it forward with pizza
In partnership with the City of Toronto and CaféTO, CBC Toronto's Serving Up Change series is profiling business owners in five neighbourhoods across the city who, on top of innovating and working overtime, are bolstered by incredible community support.
The CBC Toronto community partnership with the City of Toronto and CaféTO continues in Toronto's West End with Corso Italia. This community runs along St. Clair Avenue West, roughly between Dufferin Street and Lansdowne Avenue.
As is the case in Bloor West Village, residents here are incredibly supportive of local business during the COVID-19 crisis. Most of its 36 restaurants are owned and operated by passionate restaurateurs, and frequented by people who live within walking distance.
Scenes from Corso Italia have been in the news as of late: a wave of people spilled onto St. Clair Avenue West after Italy's championship win in the Euro Cup. In the middle of that jubilation, is Frank's Pizza House and Giorgio Taverniti.
Frank's Pizza House has been around since 1965 and is one of the oldest pizzerias in Toronto. Owner Giorgio Taverniti, a fourth-generation restaurateur, took over the business in 1992 and has been serving up slices ever since.
Taverniti and his mom worked side by side until she passed away five years ago. It wasn't the only hardship he would have to endure.
"I've had advanced glaucoma all my life," Taverniti said. "But in the last couple years, I've lost the peripheral vision in my right eye completely and most of the peripheral vision in my left eye."
I have to prepare myself for when I can't see anything, and I practice making pizzas blindfolded.- Frank Taverniti
Taverniti is now considered legally blind, prompting his wife to give up her job as a lawyer to stay at home with their six kids.
"I've only come out with my story in the past year or so. I didn't want people to feel sorry for me," Taverniti admitted. "People probably thought I was drinking because I was dropping things, bumping into things".
Pride held him back from sharing his truth, but other people's struggles during the pandemic gave him the perspective and strength to go public.
"People were losing their jobs. At the beginning, people were coming here asking for food," Taverniti said. "It made me come out and think, with everything happening with COVID, my situation is not that bad after all."
Like many neighbourhoods, the Corso Italia restaurant strip did not escape the pandemic unscathed.
"The restrictions and forced closures have been devastating to many of our businesses. We estimate that we've permanently lost at least 20-25% of our restaurants," said Kevin McIntosh, Vice Chair of the Corso Italia BIA. "Some were simply not strong enough to weather the storm, some did not understand the process for applying for assistance or did not qualify in some way."
Although members of the community came to Taverniti with generous financial support, Frank's Pizza House was faring better than most. He decided the right thing to do was to pay it forward to those in need, even though the restaurant was offered donations.
I said, I can't take your donation for myself but what we will do is we'll set up a fund. We have a big banner in front of the restaurant that basically says 'pay what you can.' If you only have a dollar, pay a dollar, if you don't have a dollar we'll give you that slice for free.- Giorgio Taverniti
In order to financially survive COVID-19, Taverniti worked hard, and adapted quickly. That also meant simply keeping the doors open to see what would happen.
"A lot of guys were closed and our community was asking, 'are you open for lunch, are you open for dinner?' Taverniti explained. "Because everyone was working from home and they wanted pizza. So we extended our hours and kept going full force."
Frank's Pizza House has a small patio on St. Clair Ave. West, as part of the City's CaféTO program. However it was the restaurant's takeout and delivery offering that proved to be their financial lifeline.
However, there was one aspect of the business Taverniti needed to tweak: since no one wanted to pay cash, the website had to be updated.
"I have friends who are very tech savvy, so we were able to do that overnight, over a glass of wine," Taverniti said. "A lot of restaurant guys weren't lucky enough to have someone to do it."
Luck may have played a role, but so too did the symbiotic relationship Frank's Pizza House has with the community.
"The community was very supportive in this area. Not only to myself; I saw other people donating gift certificates, people buying food from restaurants and giving it to those in need. I saw a lot of traction to 'go local and go support your local restaurants.' Very generous, very giving," Taverniti said. "And I think the restaurants who were willing to bend a bit and do things for their customers, I think they are going to be around for a while."
Now, back to Sunday's nail-biting game: according to Taverniti, it was the morale boost that the Corso Italia neighbourhood needed.
"It was very emotional. People were crying tears of joy, strangers were hugging each other. The street was alive!" Taverniti said.
And as Ontario enters Step 3 of its reopening plan, the Corso Italia BIA is confident local businesses will rebound.
"Corso Italia has always been a strong community and we believe it is well positioned for a comeback post-COVID," said McIntosh.
"Friday's reopening is going to be a special day. I'll finally get to see my customers once again inside my family pizzeria after 16 months," Taverniti beamed. "We are definitely going in the right direction. Let us, the restaurateurs, have our business back."
CBC Toronto's Serving Up Change series will run all summer. Stay tuned for more restaurant features from other neighbourhoods in Toronto. Next week: spotlight on Toronto's downtown.