The Insatiable Janet Zuccarini
After nearly three decades building her food empire in Toronto, Janet Zuccarini is launching an 8,000-square-foot, $7-million hotspot in LA this fall—all while mourning her husband, Robbie Robertson. Opening a restaurant in 2023 is brave. Running a dozen of them is bonkers
Every time Janet Zuccarini launches a new restaurant, she swears she will never do it again. Why would she? Opening a restaurant is a nightmare. Every step takes twice as long and costs twice as much as it’s supposed to. In fact, there’s an entire documentary about the hellacious 2017 opening of Felix, Zuccarini’s restaurant just off Venice Beach—and the first foray out of Toronto for her restaurant group, Gusto 54, where Zuccarini is founder and CEO. The film is titled Funke, in honour of Evan Funke, Felix’s fervid, woolly-bearded chef. In the doc, the renowned pasta maker and Wolfgang Puck protégé is clamouring for a win after his previous restaurant, the celebrated Bucato, imploded. Citing irreconcilable differences with his partners, Funke had vamoosed. Lawsuits from unpaid vendors ensued, and Funke, out $2.7 million, declared personal bankruptcy.
Funke is framed as a comeback story, even as the restaurant’s opening date gets pushed again and again (mould, a faulty gas hookup). Zuccarini, who is paying for Felix with revenue from her Toronto restaurants, appears from time to time, diminutive and taut as a gymnast, face framed by sheets of long brown hair, a mild smile on her face. She calmly notes that the budget has jumped from $3 million to $4 million and what was supposed to take 13 weeks is taking 30. And yes, she has mortgaged her Rosedale home to cover the overages.
Funke is the star of Funke, and Zuccarini is a supporting character, but that’s just a movie. In reality, she designs the stage that the actor will swan across; without her, there is no chef, no food, no firmament. In the film, a choked-up Funke says he couldn’t have opened Felix without Zuccarini. It was Zuccarini who took the initial risk, approaching Funke on the recommendation of a food writer friend. She didn’t care about the Bucato debacle. His food was genius, and a fallen chef would work harder.
Felix opened to lineups and a James Beard Award nomination for Funke. Esquire declared it the best new restaurant in America. I have eaten there, and the cacio e pepe was so good I felt like grabbing the stranger next to me at the bar, shaking him by the lapels and shouting, “Can you believe we get to be here on the planet right now eating this?”
I am not the only one who feels this way, but I am undoubtedly the least famous. LA restaurants are all about celebrities, and Felix is filled with them. Like whom? I ask Zuccarini. “Name a celebrity,” she prompts. My mind goes blank, and the best I come up with is Leonardo DiCaprio. “He’s a friend,” she says. “We do burger nights with him.”
Felix was instantly a destination, but the celebrity quotient increased when, in 2017, Zuccarini started dating Robbie Robertson, the former superstar frontman of The Band. Robertson liked to bring friends to the restaurant, including his frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, who shot the 1978 documentary about The Band’s dissolution, The Last Waltz. Pacino and De Niro popped by too. Zuccarini has heard some stories.
This A-list whorl is a contrast to Zuccarini’s Toronto offerings, which are much less hey-look-at-me. Well-managed stalwarts have been the Zuccarini brand since her first restaurant, Trattoria Nervosa (then called Café Nervosa), which is still standing in Yorkville after 27 years. Chubby’s, a Jamaican joint on Portland, was recognized in the Michelin Guide, but mostly, Gusto 54 has built a fleet of mid-price-point hangouts humming along on an engine of repeat business. In an industry that attracts flashy investors with vanity projects, Zuccarini is a quieter presence, someone who brings order to chaos. Perhaps she remains less of a known quantity than her peers here (Charles Khabouth, Michael Bonacini) because the majority of restaurateurs are men. Or perhaps most of us hear about restaurants and the people behind them only when they’re collapsing, and hers don’t.
It’s not that Zuccarini is hiding. Her Instagram posts have included red carpets with Robertson, plus she’s a judge on Top Chef Canada. But she’s the straight-shooting, even-keeled one, doling out unfancy business advice. When asked about the secret to her success, she says, “We watch the pennies”—which, on the scale of leadership aphorisms, is not so meme-able.
But it is repeatable, and that’s why Zuccarini, at 57 years old, is opening another restaurant in spite of herself, this time in West Hollywood. Stella is Zuccarini’s most ambitious project yet. Where Felix is casual and relatively cozy (110 seats), Stella will be luxe, a two-floor, 8,000-square-foot, 200-seat behemoth with the ability to serve up to 1,000 people a day.
When we meet in the unfinished kitchen of Stella on a breezy day in May, Zuccarini is standing next to yet another intense, bearded chef who emerged from the ashes of a high-profile restaurant flameout: Rob Gentile, formerly of Buca in Toronto. That’s where Gentile earned a reputation as one of the best chefs in Canada, known for elevated rustic Italian. King Street Company Inc., the outfit behind Buca, struggled while trying to expand, running up $35 million in debt. Gentile split from them in 2020, after 11 years. Then Zuccarini called. Now he lives in LA.
As he walks me through Stella, Gentile, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with herb puns (“Be on thyme!” “Be sage!”), is exploding out of the blocks, leading me over uninstalled ducts and around tubes of insulation. He describes what will exist in the space like a kid explaining the imagined renovations to his dollhouse: this is where the slide will go, this is where the treehouse will go. “It’ll be a cool Hollywood booth vibe over there,” he says. “Fellini movies. 1950s. Sexy.” Terrazzo floors here and private rooms for Oscar parties there. Which is to say: this is where the celebrities will go.
Renovations began in January, after multiple delays due to supply chain problems and struggles with the city over permits. Zuccarini estimates that the cost of building a restaurant has increased by about 30 per cent since the pandemic started. “Stella will cost maybe $7 million, all in, every plate and fork,” she says. This is double what she’d anticipated. Hospitality, an already risky endeavour, has been transformed since Covid, with existing businesses hamstrung by debt, food costs and labour shortages. Restaurant bankruptcies across Canada have increased by 116 per cent since 2022, according to Restaurants Canada, an industry association.
Gentile’s tour stops at the threshold of what will be his pasta lab. He giddily describes a 300-year-old pasta technique called su filindeu (“the threads of God”), which he learned in Sardinia from some of the only living experts. I try to read Zuccarini’s expression when Gentile explains how labour intensive (i.e., expensive) it is to make the world’s rarest pasta. But she seems at ease, and it occurs to me that her faint smile isn’t masking fear. To do this work—to risk so much—the patron, as well as the artist, must be wild at heart.
“Grief hit me very hard,” says Zuccarini of Robertson’s diagnosis. “I thought, I want more time”
This head-first attitude animates her personal choices too. When she became involved with Robertson, Zuccarini had to consider a looming reality: with 23 years between them, they were at different stages of life, and there would be a clock on their time together. She fell in love anyway. And in March, after dating for five years, the couple got married at their home in Beverly Hills. Then the worst happened. In 2022, Robertson had received a diagnosis of prostate cancer. In August, a few weeks after his 80th birthday and five months after their wedding, he died.
At Robertson’s request, Zuccarini didn’t speak of his illness to anyone outside their close circle until shortly before his death. I didn’t know it at the time, but when we were standing in the construction zone at Stella on that day in May, she was in two places at once: on that dark, thin-aired planet of illness, bearing witness to the end of her husband’s life, and in this world, where she was, as ever, building.
Zuccarini’s father, Giacomo, used many Italian expressions, but one that stuck with Janet was the idea that there are two ways of being: furbo or fesso. “Are you furbo? ‘Cunning’ would be the exact translation. And if you can fool somebody, they’re fesso, the idiot,” she explains. She tells me this on the garden patio at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel, which is just down the hill from her house.
Furbo can have a negative connotation, but it also commands grudging respect—people who are furbo get shit done. Giacomo immigrated to Canada from Italy after the Second World War (via London, where he was a maître d’ at the Savoy Hotel). Here, he ran a restaurant—steaks and pasta—called the Sidewalk Caffè, at College and Yonge, and became the first importer of espresso makers to Canada, in 1954. When his partner allegedly bankrupted the restaurant and fled, Giacomo shifted his focus entirely to importing. He met Karin, who had emigrated from Germany, at a party, and they had three girls: Jackie, Janet and Jennifer. The Zuccarinis lived in a big, raucous house in the Yonge and Lawrence area, raised voices around a dinner table filled with fresh, home-cooked Italian food.
The home could also be tense, recalls Jennifer. She’s 10 years younger than Janet and is the founder of a New York fashion house called Fleur du Mal. “Growing up, there was a lot of chaos, a lot of fighting,” she says.
In elementary school, Janet wasn’t a great student; after-school scrapping was more her thing. She believed that being able to defend yourself was a necessary life skill—one she tried to pass on to her little sister. “She would put me on one side of the trampoline and put a friend on the other and ring a bell and say, ‘Okay, fight!’ ” Jennifer remembers.
At her mother’s urging, Janet—hammy and cute—became a child actor. She landed commercials for Alpha-getti, Sunlight, Colgate. At 13, she made it to one of the final rounds of auditions for the orphan chorus in Annie on Broadway. Okay, so she couldn’t hit high C, but she’d figure it out later (furbo!). Janet and her mom flew to New York, where Janet danced and sang her heart out to “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” When she was done, a voice in the dark asked her to step forward into the footlights: “Please hit high C for us, Janet.” The jig was up. (Sarah Jessica Parker won the role of Annie.)
Giacomo worked long days at Zuccarini Importing. When Janet was 14, he told her that he was too tired to drive her to see her friends. She should drive herself from now on, he said, on one condition: if she got caught, she had to tell police that she had taken the car without his knowledge. A year later, while Janet was on her way back from the Pilot in Yorkville, the cops stopped her. When Giacomo picked her up at the station, he delivered an Oscar-worthy performance of outrage and then, once outside, laughed and laughed.
Early on, he had conscripted his three daughters to work at his business. As teens, Jackie (who now runs the company) and Janet would repossess espresso machines when restaurants fell behind on payments. The girls would scope out the location, waiting for a hectic pocket in the day, then signal for their burly servicemen to rush in and take the machine before the busy owners could argue. Restaurant: fesso. Zuccarinis: furbo.
At 18, Janet left Leaside High and went backpacking through Europe, ending up in Rome. She took a job at Cinecitta, the legendary film studio, where she reinvented herself as a casting agent for American films and an English teacher for Italian directors. She was an extra in The Godfather Part III.
While there, she also completed an undergrad in business and an MBA. When she returned to Toronto, she agreed to work for her father in the office, but she was a swing-for-the-fences entrepreneur trapped in a straight job. “I needed to grow something,” she says. “I like excitement. I like freedom.” In the pre-Starbucks era, she put together a business plan for her father: a chain of coffee shops. Giacomo wasn’t interested. Why take the risk?
But Janet leaned in to risk. In 1996, she noticed a restaurant opening at the corner of Yorkville and Belair—Café Nervosa. She walked into the half-renovated space to introduce herself and tell the new owners that Zuccarini Importing had sold their predecessors an espresso machine. After a brief chat with two of the men backing the restaurant, they invited her to become a partner. Her business senses tingled: triple-A location, patio. She had trained as a Neapolitan pizza maker during her travels—useful. Sure, she could lose money, but the alternative—an ordinary, 9-to-5 life—meant losing herself.
Two weeks later, Zuccarini was in the restaurant business. She had just purchased a condo by persuading her father to give her the money he would have spent on a big Italian wedding. She sold it to buy shares in Nervosa.
At 30 years old, Zuccarini moved back in with her parents, sleeping in her childhood bed while she threw herself into her new life. She worked six days a week—serving, bussing, booking live music. She loved the adrenalin rush of the business, the domino chain of problems to be solved on any given night. She became known for her “birthday dance”: turning out the lights and bursting into a room doing salsa kicks, lit up by the sparkler in the cake she carried.
Her father hated all of this. “He had one rule: never take on a partner,” she says. “Not only did I take on a partner, I went into the restaurant business.” For a while, Giacomo stopped speaking to his middle daughter. Finally, he came to Nervosa—but just that once. “And after he ate, he said, ‘Your restaurant’s lousy,’ ” she says.
He wasn’t wrong, exactly—Zuccarini didn’t love the food then either. But it was a revelatory moment for her. She thought of the ways she had not been enough for her father: excelling in university had elicited a shrug; her business ideas had been dismissed. A switch was flipped; she was done. “I was like, I can’t win with him. I have to live my own life.” The unruliness of restaurants made her happy, so that’s what she would do.
At Nervosa, troubles arose quickly. This was ’90s Yorkville—coke-hoovering high rollers filled the restaurant to overflow. Yet there seemed to be no profits. Zuccarini and the chef, Neil Siomra, bought out the remaining partner, whom they suspected of mismanaging the finances. But things got worse when it was just her and Siomra. “He was from the old-school kitchen of slamming pots against walls and throwing things,” Zuccarini says. “He used to tell me the only thing I was good for was making a cappuccino.”
Asked about this, Siomra says, “Sometimes, when life gets a little bit crazy, and you’re a younger man, you say a couple things you wish you hadn’t. But there’s not one chef in Toronto who hasn’t thrown a pan. I got yelly because I was frustrated. But did I ever berate her in front of customers or staff? Absolutely not.”
Siomra didn’t think that Zuccarini, new to the industry, had what it took to run a restaurant. The relationship deteriorated, and Siomra invoked a shotgun buyout clause: Zuccarini had 20 days to pay the amount he set or the restaurant was his. At the time, her father was dying of leukemia. “He pulled the trigger at what he might have thought was my weakest point,” she says. “I thought, Touché, good move, but you do not know who you’re up against.”
Zuccarini had been living frugally, saving every penny of her tips. In Siomra’s version of events, she comes off as something of a rich-kid interloper, a culinary nepo baby. On the 20th day, Zuccarini walked into Nervosa and presented Siomra with a cheque. He took off his apron and walked out. She would go it alone from that point forward as sole proprietor, no partners. Siomra went on to run a successful restaurant in Davisville Village and currently works with Sash Events and Catering. They haven’t seen each other since the day she bought him out, but Siomra has watched her ascent from afar. “I didn’t think she’d be okay without me, and look at her now,” he says. “Good for her.”
Zuccarini eventually bought the building too, in 2006, for $2.5 million. It is now worth roughly eight times that.
Before her father died, Zuccarini called him, hoping to close the distance. She told him she loved him and that she was afraid he was going to die. “He said, ‘I thought you didn’t care if I lived or died.’ I’m sad that he thought that,” she says quietly.
Giacomo explained that he didn’t want the hard life of restaurants for her. “It really bothered him to see me work 16-hour days,” says Zuccarini. The two reached an understanding, and they had about a year of détente before his death. Her eyes fill up. “I got to have a deep relationship with my father again. And a loving one.”
Zuccarini has been doing “inner work,” she says, for many years, and she’s comfortable at the vaguely woo-woo intersection of self-help and business know-how, where a lot of entrepreneurs live. She’s a fan of the bestseller Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and it was a seminar with the Landmark Forum that prompted her to reconcile with her father. In other words, Zuccarini has applied the same strategic, all-in focus to living her best life as she has to running her business. These contemporary personal-optimization tactics are arguably dubious, but Gusto 54’s expansion, and Zuccarini’s enviable list of adventures, could make a doubter doubt the doubt.
She spent her 40s building her company while taking time to travel the world, alternating soothing hobbies like yoga with perilous ones like jumping out of planes. Food ideas from Indonesia, Jamaica and India creep into her restaurants. The trips weren’t especially extravagant; she puts most of her profits back into the company. What she wanted was to not be a sucker, fesso, working and working, something she’d seen her father do.
In her early 50s, she took up a new sport: tennis. Yes, it’s for pleasure, but she now plays competitively. “She plays tennis seven days a week,” Robertson told me in May. “And she doesn’t just go out and hit a ball. She goes out to kill the ball.”
There’s a reason so many reality TV shows are set in restaurants. The race-against-the-clock challenges, gargantuan personalities prone to abuses of power, and high stakes set by demanding customers and anxious owners make for dramatic backdrops. And then there’s the shared experience of food, that vessel of sensorial, world-expanding pleasure or (sweeps week!) deep psychological trauma.
Zuccarini is not interested in drama. Her company fires fast when there is bad behaviour, says Juanita Dickson, Gusto 54’s president and CFO. “We can’t have anyone going Gordon Ramsay on our watch. You can be super talented, but you can’t be an asshole.”
In Gusto 54’s Toronto restaurants, chefs aren’t the only draw. Dickson points to Zuccarini’s sixth sense for real estate opportunities. “When she bought the building at King and Portland, people said she was crazy for going west of Spadina, that it was in the middle of nowhere.” Dickson is referring to Gusto 101, the pizza-and-pasta go-to located in a former auto-body shop that Zuccarini bought for $960,000 in 2009. “But there were lineups around the corner.” Until recently, when real estate prices soared out of control, Zuccarini often purchased the buildings that housed her restaurants, a savvy strategy that has left her asset rich and less vulnerable to rent fluctuations.
Zuccarini seems to excel at building a safe harbour for wounded food virtuosos
Demetrio Bianco, COO of Gusto 54, has been working with Zuccarini since he was a waiter at Nervosa 27 years ago. He identifies another, less measurable skill: “Janet has magic.” (This sounds really nice in an Italian accent.) He says that, when she walks into any restaurant, she does a scan and will point out something small but telling, like a wilted flower in a planter. She’s known to check the washrooms and sometimes sits incognito, observing the body language of diners for evidence of displeasure, making sure that sour-looking face at table five gets some attention.
These are the practical decisions that Gusto 54 is known for: strategic locations, efficient processes, attention to detail, a non-toxic culture. For more than two decades, the Gusto formula was fairly bulletproof. According to Zuccarini, her restaurants typically operated at very healthy 14 per cent margins pre-Covid. (Restaurants Canada puts the industry average at 3.8 per cent.) Success begets success, and the restaurants funded their own growth, scaling and leaving room for the company to slide into the competitive LA market with Felix. Zuccarini wanted to move to a place where the sun shines—part of her best-life philosophy.
After Felix opened to raves, Zuccarini became a unicorn in the restaurant world—not one flop, not one failed concept. Then came 2020. “Covid made us illegal overnight,” she says. Revenue ceased and layoffs ensued across the group. Gusto 54 shuttered a property: Gusto Green, a wellness-and-cannabis restaurant in a slightly underdeveloped part of downtown LA that lasted only a few months. It is the sole restaurant Zuccarini has ever closed. “I knew that neighbourhood was going to take 10 years to come around after Covid,” she says. “I wasn’t willing to wait.”
But, before the pandemic, Zuccarini had been scoping out a different part of LA. She noticed that West Hollywood was feeling dusty and overdue for destination dining. In 2020, a space freed up—a venerable Italian spot on Beverly Boulevard called Madeo was moving. The address was well known; paparazzi would wait outside to snap celebrities like Drake and Kristen Stewart. The timing for a new restaurant was terrible. The risk was high. Zuccarini was in.
Rob Gentile was walking his dog in Leslieville in early 2021 when he got a call from Zuccarini: Would he consider moving to LA? She caught him at a weird time—he was still smarting from the dissolution of Buca as he knew it. But Zuccarini had been blown away by Gentile’s food, which put him at the top of the list when she started planning her second LA restaurant. Gentile hadn’t been looking to leave Toronto, but Zuccarini coaxed him out to California for a visit. Once there, he cooked a six-course meal for her and some early investors at art dealer Larry Gagosian’s house, everything sourced from Santa Monica farmers’ markets. Artichoke salad. Pasta with spot prawns and stuffed zucchini flowers. Pizzas. Branzino crudo. Peaches and zabaglione with amoretti. Gentile was a quick convert: the ingredients were staggeringly good—maybe a West Coast climate was the tool he needed to take his craft to the next level. “Creatively speaking, I wasn’t happy for a very long time,” he says. “Stella was an opportunity to make a change in my life.”
Zuccarini seems to excel at building a safe harbour for wounded food virtuosos. “I like working with someone who’s very talented and has had a bit of a setback,” she says. “They come back hungry.” The popular Thai restaurants Pai and Kiin came under the Gusto 54 banner when chef Nuit Regular split from her former partner at Khao San Road. And when Zuccarini first called Evan Funke, seeking a chef for her Venice Beach spot, his phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook. After Bucato’s collapse, he had been named as a defendant in a civil suit, though his name was later dropped.
Funke had no idea who Zuccarini was, but he was receptive to a pitch from a calm restaurateur with a solid track record and a spot on Abbot Kinney, the most walkable street in Venice. Funke flew to Toronto to cook for her, exquisitely. Zuccarini was smitten with the trofie al pesto and the airy rosemary-topped focaccia, declaring his food casalinga, the cooking style of housewives, aunts and nonnas. Funke loved that.
His recent flameout was of no interest to Zuccarini. “Finding a chef is the single hardest thing about running a restaurant,” she says. “I liked him. I know that I’m never really going to know somebody inside and out. I get a feeling.”
A glass-walled pasta lab sits in the middle of Felix, and diners can watch chefs—sometimes Funke himself, the biggest fish in the fishbowl—rolling dough by mattarello, a long wooden rolling pin. Felix relaunched Funke’s career, turning him into a true celebrity chef, with a book, TV appearances on Today and new restaurants. His Italian spot Mother Wolf opened in Hollywood in 2022, the eponymous Funke in Beverly Hills earlier this year. Both were hits, and while he’s still the face of Felix, neither of his new restaurants have anything to do with Gusto 54. I’m curious how this sits with Zuccarini: Did she rehabilitate his reputation only to watch the Funke brand spread across LA without her?
“When Mother Wolf opened, it was disappointing,” she says, acknowledging that Gusto was in post-pandemic recovery mode at the time. “I wish I could have done more with Evan, but he got scooped up. He was offered incredible deals. I told him, ‘Go, son, go with the money.’ ”
I ask if she’s tried to lock down Gentile in an exclusive deal to prevent a repeat, but she says she’s not interested in harnessing her stars. The dance between owner and chef is a delicate one. Restaurants that can strike an equilibrium between the ephemeral beauty of the culinary arts and the blunt reality of commerce are the ones that last. If the balance is off, everything can crumble.
While Mother Wolf has won accolades—Beyoncé celebrated her Grammy wins there—it’s also the subject of several lawsuits. The two hospitality groups that back the restaurant are fighting for control, and in May, Mother Wolf was one of five spots under investigation for failing to distribute a five per cent service fee to workers.
Zuccarini raises a perfectly sculpted eyebrow. “I’m going to tell you, the grass is not always greener.”
Felix remains Zuccarini’s proudest achievement. It’s also where she met Robertson, in 2017; they were set up at a birthday party thrown by Roots founder Michael Budman for his wife, Diane Bald. Zuccarini knew Robertson from his ’80s solo career, but she was hardly a Band superfan, as he learned early on. “She started singing a little bit of ‘Somewhere Down the Crazy River,’ and I thought, Oh, okay, maybe she’s not just interested in me because of my old musical-legend period,” he told me over the phone in May, on a break from last-minute tinkering with his score for Scorsese’s new film, Killers of the Flower Moon.
When they first met, Zuccarini was intrigued: Robertson, then in his mid-70s, was absurdly accomplished and as shaggily handsome as ever. But settling down had never been a priority for her—until now. “Sometimes I had boyfriends who were like, What are you trying to prove? What—more restaurants?” she says. As her sister Jennifer puts it, “Janet needed somebody who was comfortable in their own skin and wanted her to be nothing but her best.”
A string of dinners at LA’s best restaurants bloomed into a love story documented in an uncharacteristically flex-y birthday video on Zuccarini’s Instagram. In voice-over, she declares, “You were worth the wait….You are my heartbeat.” A glittering LA life unfolds in snaps of private jets and strolls on the deck of David Geffen’s yacht. (The couple bought their $6-million modernist home from Geffen, a good friend of Robertson’s.) In one clip, Zuccarini cooks Robertson a butter-basted steak while he sits, wearing his granny glasses, at the end of a candlelit table, enraptured: “Sweetie! This is amazing!”
It makes sense that Zuccarini, professional handler of intense kitchen personalities, would be comfortable building a life alongside a creative man with an outsized reputation. She described him as “a true artist, strong and strong willed.” It’s tempting to see shades of Giacomo, too, in Robertson, but these traits—independent, visionary—also sound a lot like Zuccarini.
“I’m a person who’s on a mission. I’m trying to do some good work. And she’s on a mission and trying to do some good work,” said Robertson. Notoriously prolific, Robertson had found, in Zuccarini, an ambition twin. “I didn’t really want to be in a relationship with somebody saying, ‘Why aren’t we always doing things together?’ We do different things. And we want to do them really well. It feels nice to go off and then come back to somebody you adore.”
At the end of our conversation, Robertson excused himself to go back to the studio. He was deep in cancer treatment, but Zuccarini told me he believed he could fight through. He had so much left to do. “When he got diagnosed last year, I can’t say that I was in shock, because of his age. But grief hit me very hard. I thought, I want more time.”
They had help, but Zuccarini wanted to be her husband’s primary caregiver. She stayed close. She cut his hair. Food brought him comfort, so she cooked: her special scrambled eggs or the homemade gelato she was perfecting. Their experiences, previously so epic in scale, were pared down to the essentials. “The little things,” she says. “Feeling that breeze. Being able to enjoy food. Looking at the views—beautiful. Moment to moment.”
It’s 1 p.m. on a scorching Tuesday in July, and there’s a lineup outside Nervosa, almost three decades after it opened. Zuccarini is back in Toronto for the first time in six months, and she’ll stay just 48 hours before returning to Robertson. She sits in the middle of a long table on the rooftop patio, flanked by members of her senior team. Three are wearing Rolexes given to them by Zuccarini on their 10th and 15th anniversaries with the company—including Bianco, who got an upgrade on his 25th. On our way out of the restaurant after lunch, Zuccarini pulls Bianco aside and tells him that the mirror in the bathroom is too high—she could barely see herself in it. (A couple of weeks later, I returned: it had been lowered.)
Back in LA, the reno of Stella has fallen behind. It’s been a rough few weeks, with multiple delays, and Zuccarini replaced the contractors, something she’s never done midstream. Eater originally reported that Stella would open at the end of 2022. Now it looks like November 2023, American Thanksgiving.
Gentile is in the restaurant most days, weighing in on construction, and he’s been testing the food with pop-ups and catering around LA. But he’s itchy. “It’s hard to wait. I have pages and pages of menu ideas,” he says. He sounds like a horse bucking at the barn doors. “All I need is to hear the word go.”
There are several shareholders bucking alongside him. Coming out of Covid with a revenue hit, Zuccarini didn’t want to float Stella alone. While Gusto 54 will handle the business side, she and Gentile have partnered with a few investors, led by Toronto hedge fund manager Moez Kassam. “I kind of like it,” she says. “They’re holding us accountable. And we’re good at that part. We look at every penny that we spend, and that’s how I’m around 27 years later.”
But longevity isn’t a given. After a reckoning over the industry’s terrible working conditions and low wages, hospitality staffers are finally getting wage bumps, a hit for owners still catching their breath. Zuccarini has been looking at what tasks robots could handle in the kitchen and whether AI could take over some social media responsibilities. Penny-watching. “Lots of restaurants are going to close,” she says. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Though Zuccarini’s existing restaurants are finally operating with full staff, seven days a week, they still haven’t recovered completely from the shutdown. And their founder is firm about wanting to take a beat once Stella finally opens. “I want to settle for a moment. I’m not going to start another brand. I just need two years of stabilizing the company.”
I ask Dickson, the CFO who has been with Gusto 54 for eight years, if it’s true that Zuccarini is pulling back, slowing down. She laughs. “She always says that. Opening a restaurant is like having a baby. You forget the pain once it’s born.”
In July, Robertson turned 80. Zuccarini threw him a small party, filling their house with Robertson’s children; his grandchildren; his ex-wife, Dominique Bourgeois; and Bourgeois’s partner. The same crew comes over most weekends for dinner. It was a birthday party, but Robertson died a few weeks later, and now it seems to have also been a goodbye.
Robertson liked magic, so Zuccarini brought in a magician. She put together a slideshow of 400 pictures. For food, the Felix team made burgers and fries—Robertson’s request.
Her entire life, Zuccarini has been engaged in hospitality—the world of feeding and caring, of crafting experiences and memories for strangers out of the smallest details. It’s been a career of building and risking, reaping the benefits and taking the hits. Hospitality is a business but also a kind of art form. And like all art, it’s an expression of emotion, sometimes an expression of love. An act of service.
Robertson had been talking about—yearning for—the strawberry pie of his childhood, made by his mother, who was raised on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, southwest of Toronto. Zuccarini unearthed the old recipe and gave it to Funke so that, at the end of the night, mini strawberry pies would be passed around. Zuccarini watched as her Proustian gambit paid off and family and friends slowly realized what they were eating. Everyone went silent, and Robertson lit up. Zuccarini was delighted, but she could not have been surprised. There was hardly any doubt that she would pull it off.
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