Not your average Italian food experience (9 photos)
Antico Ristorante is promoted as ‘not your average Italian food experience.’
That’s not only because chef/owner Arturo Comegna’s food is excellent, but also because Arturo himself is not your average guy.
Friendly, lively and straight-to-the-point honest in a humorous way, Arturo shared some of his life experiences and feelings about serving fine food with SooToday, Antico Ristorante the subject of this week’s SooToday Midweek Mugging.
Arturo arrived in Canada from Casoli, in the Abruzzo region of Italy, in the late 1970s, marrying and settling down in the Sault.
“I started working at the steel plant and it wasn’t my type of job. All I did all my life was working in a restaurant, I worked as a waiter when I was 12 years old. So I quit the job and went to work at Rico’s Restaurant.”
“It was a big pay cut but it didn’t matter. I wanted to be in a restaurant.”
Arturo bought Rico’s in 1982 and ran it until 1990.
He looks back on that as a valuable learning experience.
“I learned a lot, I learned hands on, made mistakes until I got it right,” Arturo recalled.
But Arturo certainly did many things right, as his time as Rico’s owner established his reputation as an extraordinary local chef, with many loyal customers still enjoying his culinary creations at Antico Ristorante.
“Knowledge is everything. You’ve got to be good with the food all the time. You can’t expect people to pay you 100 bucks for nothing. It’s food, and food is life, you’ve got to be consistent in what you’re doing and believe in who you are.”
Not one to rest on his laurels as a successful and highly admired chef, Arturo said “you’re only as good as your last dinner you served.”
Arturo’s advice to aspiring young chefs is to roll up their sleeves and not only prepare meals, but wash dishes, serve tables and clean every inch of a restaurant themselves in order to know every aspect of the business.
After Rico’s, Arturo opened a business called Mr. Takeout.
“Big mistake. It was not my thing dealing with all kinds of different people late at night, they wanted free delivery…I said ‘forget it,’ that’s not what I am,” he said in his lively way.
In the mid 1990s, Arturo went to southern Ontario and worked outside the restaurant business, but decided in 1999 he wanted to return to his original, chosen profession.
“I came back at the right time, The Food Network was on TV and I realized ‘hey wait a minute, that’s what I want to do,’” he smiled.
Opening Arturo’s on Gore Street (the self-named restaurant later relocating to Queen Street, the eatery now owned by his sons Chris and Thomas), the chef eventually opened Antico Ristorante at 6 Village Court, in the middle of a residential neighbourhood just north of the McNabb and Lake intersection.
The walls of Antico Ristorante are adorned with art, most of the colourful paintings done by Arturo himself.
“The painting is something which makes me happy, but I’m a chef. I don’t make money with painting,” he laughed.
Arturo has his own beliefs about Italian food, which he tells in a blunt, entertaining way.
“My Italian food is not all pasta and meatballs, ribs and chicken. That, to me, is not Italian. We don’t do that in Italy. My Mom makes meatballs maybe once every 10 years. No ribs. There’s a different sauce, a different style,” Arturo said, adding the special he had planned for the evening SooToday spoke with him included shrimp, crab cakes and ravioli in Pernod sauce.
“True Italian food is different in every region in Italy. In the south it’s eggplant, lots of tomatoes, zucchini and oranges, while in Abruzzo there’s a lot of lamb and artichokes, and as you go north you’ve got more cheese, pork and beef…it’s totally different. My favourite is lamb,” Arturo said, adding he feels much of the bottled Italian tomato sauce sold in supermarkets is, well, not good in his opinion.
“It’s full of preservatives. Put it in the garbage, please don’t put it in your stomach. Get good tomatoes from California or Italy, make your own sauce.”
Arturo, now 62, said he plans to keep working as a chef for as long as he can.
“I’ll probably die with a frying pan in my hand. They’ll say ‘what happened to Arturo? Oh no, he’s on the kitchen floor!’” he roared with laughter.
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