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Why Toronto's best noodles had to be served in secret for over a year
Famiglia Baldassarre (122 Geary, at Westmoreland, 647-293-5395), until recently, was the worst-kept food secret in Toronto.
Sometime over the past year, your favourite local food writer/blogger/cool friend who knows all the good places to eat may have ’grammed a photo of some gorgeous cavatelli, tortelloni or agnolotti, posed just so on a white marble table, with some kind of oblique caption (#secretpastaclub).
Technically, the public wasn’t supposed to know that Baldassarre, a wholesale company that supplies fresh pasta to some of the best spots in town (Piano Piano and O&B, to name a couple), was also serving its goods fresh over the front counter of its Geary Avenue facility at lunch. Blame an obscure city bylaw from around 1995, which forbade the property from being used as a restaurant.
But word inevitably spread, and while Leandro Baldassarre was happy to meet his neighbours and see some folks appreciating his product first-hand, he also spent the past year worried city inspectors would roll up while he was mid-pasta flip and shut the whole thing down.
“It sounds so crazy,” says Baldassarre, leaning on the marble counter during a break on production day, the smell of this week’s simmering sugo hanging in the air.
“I’m selling noodles – not firearms.”
Baldassarre moved into the Geary location in winter 2016 after his wholesale business, nurtured by big-name allies like David Lee, outgrew his old basement space on College. He and the crew “started messing around” with daily lunches sometime last spring.
“We said, ‘Hey, let’s just do lunch this Friday,’ and sent a note around to everyone in the building. ‘This week, we’re doing a lasagna for lunch, five bucks. Everybody come and get it,’ and they’d all pile in. Then it was two days a week, then three days.”
Nowadays, Baldassarre is a little more regimented about the menu. Wednesday is always cavatelli day Friday is tagliatelle with meat sauce or butter and Parmigiano. He may throw in some extras from the week’s wholesale orders, and maybe a tortellini in brodo or pasta fagioli, if the forecast calls for rain. Plates run about $12.
For the first four months of lunch service, the clientele was mainly folks who lived or worked on the block. “I gave membership cards to everyone who came in, had a members’ list,” says Baldassarre. “We’d send these cryptic emails out, hinting what would be for lunch the next day.
“We were just having our fun with it – until the ‘members’ thing became a necessity because we couldn’t get our licence.”
Unbeknownst to Baldassarre, or any of the city brass he spoke to while getting the place set up, a bylaw that was not visible online (“It was, like, photocopied in the back pages of the bylaw book”) vetoed 21 different potential uses, including car washes and parking lots, for any properties on Baldassarre’s block. At the bottom: bars and restaurants.
That was the beginning of a yearlong headache of denied applications, hefty fees and meetings with city councillors and lobbyists as he tried to make his lunchtime services legal.
“Every time you search for answers, there’s a lot of, ‘I don’t know, that’s just how it is.’ Really? It’s 2018,” Baldassarre says.
“Obviously, I wouldn’t have signed a lease that was pretty financially burdensome to me if I knew that it wasn’t going to work, right? To me, this is a 10-year plan – the next 10 years of my life. I was taking it seriously.
“[The city] tried to paint it like, ‘No, you just didn’t look!’ Yeah, I looked.”
Relief came in the form of an architect friend, who realized Baldassarre needed to take his battle to the committee of adjustments, which handles minor zoning variances.
“The commercial application fee is $4,000 – just to apply to go see the committee. Obviously, I was a bit nervous. It’s a lot, right? I mean, I sell a low-priced commodity.”
Together, they were able to argue to the committee that Famiglia Baldassarre was there primarily as a manufacturer: “We’re not here to just be another restaurant and turn this place into a commercial strip,” he said.
“My architect put it great: ‘This is edible advertising. Nothing more, nothing less.’ We’re selling our brand by selling 50 plates of pasta a day.”
The line outside Baldassarre a few minutes before opening.
In February, Baldassarre finally got his little slip of blue paper (and I finally was able to write about him). The long battle to bring pasta to the people has left him with mixed emotions.
“I realize the city actually had good motives to be strict in an area like this – [it was] about protecting core employment areas because they’re a dying breed. That I can get behind.”
Still, he adds, “There are licences for 80 seats on this street. Good for the businesses that are doing what they’re doing because the street needs it. My problem was with the administrative nature of this licence, how crudely it’s applied.”
That hard-won licence stipulates that Baldassarre keep his serving area to 16 square metres. So Tuesday through Friday, every square inch of those 16 square metres is filled with people fiending for their pasta fix.
The lunch crowd inside Baldassarre.
Diners jockey for position, admiring the plates of the lucky people in line before them. Strangers share conversations and maybe even a table. (There are only nine seats in the joint.)
“It’s turned into a cool little community hub,” Baldassarre says.
“The amount of people I’ve met, neighbours who are so happy that there’s somewhere to eat – it feels really good.”
It’s not technically a secret any more – but it’s definitely something special.
Tagliatelle with ragu, $12 (usually served Fridays).
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