I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Basilio (Bas) Pesce, owner and Chef of Porzia located in Parkdale, Toronto. Bas brings to Porzia his rich Italian heritage, culinary school, both as a student and a teacher, and experience in some of the finest restaurants in Toronto. Enjoy reading about Bas’s passion for amazing food, freshness of ingredients, work and home balance, Toronto’s food scene, culinary school, social media and much more.
How do you source and utilize local fresh ingredients?
In the summer our supplier list grows exponentially. Every Tuesday, which is our day off, I go up to Top Tomato Farm, to the retail division at 19th Street Farmers Market, and load the car with whatever is fresh. Everything is grown on the farm – it’s what you wish your produce section at Loblaws would look like. We deal with a lot of small producers; you won’t see a Sysco truck parked out front.
What is your first memory of food?
I always associate food with family and a big get together. There was always way too much food. Both grandmothers (from the same small town in southern Italy) would just be just cranking out the food every Sunday. I come from a very food rich family, which I didn’t realize when I was young, then I became older and started to understand the North American diet. I never went to McDonalds, never ate macaroni and cheese, I never ate that growing up. My mother just didn’t buy it. It wasn’t until I got older that I started to explore food on my own. Wow this shitty McDonalds is really shit and good at the same time.
I’ve read that being a Chef was not your first career path?
No, not at all. When I was kid I wanted to be Winnie the Pooh for the longest time, no pants, sit around in a shirt and eat honey all day, LOL. I went to Humber to become a paramedic, which didn’t work out. I worked in nightclubs as a promoter for years. I didn’t really have a lasting hobby or an interest strong enough as a kid. Like I mentioned, food was always there – I always cooked at home. If I wasn’t fighting with my sisters I would end up in the kitchen while the guys would watch soccer and fall asleep.
Comfortable Kitchen (CK) – Cooking also meant you didn’t have to clean.
BP – Boys in an Italian house never clean, LOL.
Growing up what would a typical meal be?
The classic three courses. During the week it would always be pasta, salad and various meat, chicken, fish or steak. I ate pasta every day. If we weren’t having pasta it meant we were eating somewhere else. On Sundays it was usually minestrone, a meat (veal, lamb or meatballs) cooked in tomato sauce, pasta with sauce and salad. My grandparents had a pretty good garden in their backyard. We ate a lot of zucchini flowers. I remember they wouldn’t even let the zucchini grow, it was all about the blossoms. During the large meals they would make a bread or pizza. What I knew of Pizza was foccacia; I didn’t know pizza as you know it.
CK – Was it still topped?
BP – Yeah, but it was topped with three little pieces of tomato, drowned in olive oil and salt, so incredibly good!
Working with Mark McEwan was without a doubt a great start to your professional culinary career. While working for him what did you learn that you would consider invaluable as you stand here today in your own restaurant?
He taught me how to work! Work ethic, organizing yourself, how to be a strong individual, and learn from your mistakes which are the basic elements of any job. Coming out of culinary school and working for Mark at North 44 during it’s heyday meant serving 400 people on a Saturday. You had to work, you had to be stronger than the guy beside you. Mark taught me how to think of yourself as a machine, you had to be quicker, stronger and faster than the day before. The menu was big, everything had to be precise, I look back now and think about the menu which was 4 pages long and 40 items on the menu, just crazy, not sure how I did it. It was also the first time I experienced products that were the best of the best. The quality of the food, items or ingredients were phenomenal. The steak was USDA prime, you couldn’t buy better meat.
When you decided that being a Chef was your lot in life, was opening your own restaurant an immediate goal or did it happen over time?
It was immediate, I knew once I went to culinary school I wanted to open my own restaurant. It wasn’t an epiphany or anything, it was just something I knew. I wasn’t young when I went to cooking school, I was 26. I’ve always been very independent so going to culinary school was part of the steps needed to have my own restaurant. I was very calculated with the steps needed to get here. I’ve only worked for two people in the city, Mark McEwan and Oliver & Bonacini
Although resumes often require the formality of going to culinary school, I’ve had a few chefs tell me that culinary school is useless and the cooking they did at home and the experience in a restaurant was invaluable to their careers. What’s your take?
Yes and no. 99 percent of what you learn is going to be hands on in the job anyway. Culinary school is good for a few things. I would say a lot of it is not the end all and be all. If I’m hiring someone I’m not going to choose someone over the next because they went to George Brown or Humber. I hire on attitude. If you’re a great cook that went to school but have a shitty attitude, you’re not getting hired, I don’t care. If you don’t have as strong a skill set, didn’t go to school, but have a great attitude, I’ll probably take you on. I taught at George Brown for 2 semesters. Not to throw stones at the establishments because there are a lot of great people that have come out of culinary school. I don’t feel it’s important. It comes down to your attitude, who you work with and how you learn. When I did my co-op for culinary school at North 44, I was required to do 20 hours in a week, I did 60. I put my head down, did what I was told. School gives people a very false impression what the industry is like. The industry now is so broad and general, you have to be specific to what you want to do. I want to be a chef, work in catering, product development, a food stylist or a nutritionist. The umbrella is enormous. There are 3 different types of students, kids out of high school, people that graduated university with a degree and my BA is only going to get me a job at the Gap and I need to learn or a trade or spend another 4 years and $40k at school. Or you get the 40 year old Bay Street broker that loves cooking and wants to make a career out of it. At George Brown I had 24 students in my first class of year one culinary students. 2 out of those 24 students will probably be in the industry after 2 years and 1 after 5 years, it’s just how it is.
When you opened Porzia and told your mother the name what was her response?
I think she cried for 2 days, then she bragged about it for a week and then came in expecting to get free meals. LOL
Does owning a restaurant and being a chef ever become stressful with the expectation, to evolve, create new flavor profiles, new dishes and be cutting edge?
Yes, you’re always gathering information from what you see, what you eat what you read. It’s a fulltime thing you never turn off.
CK- How to do you create?
BP – I don’t think I’m creative at all.
CK – But you are.
BP – Take our carpaccio for example, we use horse instead of beef, traditionally it’s parm, lemon and arugula. That’s not really exciting, thinking how can we make this a little nicer. We do a set egg yolk on top, fried capers and take the idea of Vitello Tonnado. It’s really the amalgamation of three dishes.
CK - I would say that’s creative.
BP – I don’t think thats creative at all, I think you’re combining three dishes.
CK – Life is gonna be a remix.
BP – Life is a big remix. There aren’t really new ideas in food, people get inspirations from everywhere and it’s those inspirations that develop new dishes or recipes. We have a Bolognese. How do you take something that’s super traditional and make it great. We don’t try to reinvent it, we make it great and get really good a reception from it.
When opening a restaurant location is paramount, I’m sure the process can cause some sleepless nights. Was Parkdale the obvious choice or did you look at other locations?
There were other areas, this was the 4th location we looked at. There were other areas that were way too expensive and a little out of my league. We actively pursued 2 other locations before we signed the lease here. Parkdale is great and was always an area we hung out in. Friends of ours did a night at the Parkdale Drink so we’d come down every Friday night, my tattoo artist is across the street, I used to hang out at the Mascott a lot. The neighborhood is established although there’s been a shift in the type of establishments that have opened over the last 4 years. Local Kitchen, P&L, Chantecler, the Geraldine, Food and Liquor, Grand Electric, Electric Mud, Small Town Food Co, Glory Hole Doughnuts, and Bertrand Alépée is opening at the old Brown Sugar place. It’s a great area, worth the treck and worth exploring if you haven’t already.
Have you ever wanted to put a dish on the menu or is there a dish currently that doesn’t make sense from a food cost or labor perspective but you’re so passionate about it that needs to be there?
All of them..LOL We do a truffle dish in December which we charge for but the amount of truffles we give is astronomical. This is a McEwanism, when people come into your restaurant to order truffles, caviar, lobster or foie gras you better not cover it with shit. If you’re ordering an item like that it better be prominent. I’ve been to restaurants, you order a lobster risotto with mascarpone and there’s half a claw in it. You have the balls to charge $38 for this. We do a tagliatelle dish with either white or black truffles, it’s pasta, truffles and butter, we charge $29 for the black and $39 for the white. With the amount of grams we give, we probably broke even but it’s such a nice dish. It’s truffles..LOL
One comment when you opened was you were 2 years late to rustic Italian. How would you respond to this?
This city goes through waves, we went through the taco wave and even restaurants that weren’t Mexican had a taco on their menu. We went through the noodle wave, now it’s Spanish. I know exactly what you’re referring to and who made it. You can’t pay attention it, they’re entitled to their opinion. Like anything in life the cream always rises to the top, look at how many taco places have closed. The ones that are good at being restaurants like Grand Electric and La Carnita are the guys that will be around. I left here at 1am on Wednesday and Grand Electric’s dining room was still half full with people eating, in Parkdale at 1am, crazy. Fads are fads and you can’t pay attention to it.
Social media is here to stay, there are a lot of benefits from being able to market yourself, create and exhibit a personality, advertise and get instant feedback. Owning a business you pour your heart into, how do you deal with the public voice being heard loud and clear, positive or negative?
I don’t mind negative feedback, it’s a great way to learn. You have to understand you will never please everyone. Social media is enormous and is a huge platform for people’s voices. I wouldn’t say a problem but the negative drawback is people use the platform but don’t know how to complain anymore. There was a time when if you didn’t have a good experience you told the restaurant and they would make up for it. If you’re a good restaurant you make sure that customer doesn’t leave sour and you turn it around. Now with Social Media people don’t give you that opportunity. They’ll post the next day that the pasta was too salty. , Why didn’t they say the pasta was to salty and we would make them a new one. It’s okay to post it on the internet but it’s not okay to say something? People are losing that face to face contact where you don’t know how to complain and you don’t allow people to recover. With social media everyone is a critic and the one qualm I have is not allowing people to make up for their mistakes.
Being a chef, (any demanding career) in a relationship, business owner and father – how do you balance it all.
You don’t…LOL You make it work, you have to and you don’t have a choice. If you don’t something will crap out on you. My first priority is my son. I still work everyday and prepare all the pasta. The weeks I don’t have my son I work 14 hour days and the weeks I do I pick him up at 5. It’s accepting that most nights you get 3 hours of sleep. It’s accepting the imbalance and being ok with it.
Whenever an article is written about Toronto food, it’s always followed by – when will Toronto get there on a world stage, what more could you ask from a food scene?
The food here is amazing but for some reason the recognition isn’t. In Toronto you can get a great $6 meal and you can get a great $300 meal. Our level of food is comparable to any city out there that I’ve experienced but I feel that the recognition hasn’t gone mainstream yet. There are a lot of great restaurants in this city that are horribly underrated but are easily comparable to all the other popular restaurants that people make a big deal out of.
Are there plans to open Porzia 2?
Number 2 for sure although it will be very different.
CK – How would it be different?
BP – It’s too hard to replicate or cookie cutter what we’re doing here. How it will be different? I’m not sure at this time.
Do you ever feel the need to escape your Italian roots from a cooking perspective and tackle a new cuisine?
All the time. I would love to open a Thai restaurant. I spent a lot of time in Thailand and it’s the perfect balance of spice, sour, salty, sweet – everything makes sense.
CK- Would you consider that a difficult cuisine to nail?
BP – Definitely. There’s not a lot of people from Thailand in Toronto so it’s difficult to find here.
I live in Mississauga, even with 700K people the food scene is non-existent. We finally have Burgers Priest. Can I twist your arm to make the move?
LOL..I’ve had this conversation with a lot people. If we were to take this restaurant brick for brick and put it at the corner of Hurontario and Burnhamthorpe, that’s the only intersection I know of in Mississauga..LOL Would we be successful? You can’t think yeah I know how to cook and run a restaurant. Does the Toronto formula work in Mississauga? If you were to take Buca, Bar Isabel or The Black Hoof to Mississauga would it work? I wouldn’t be opposed to opening in Mississauga but not with this formula.
Favorite Restaurants in Toronto?
I can tell you where I go, Pho Phoenix, Bar Buca, Buca is one of my favorites. Unfortunately I don’t get time to go there often. P&L is my Sunday escape. Pai which I would say is the best Thai food in the city.
One Italian dish you couldn’t live without.
Pasta, spaghetti with bolognese or aglio e olio and enough chilis to fuckin make you cry.
What’s more important in cooking, technique or ingredients?
If you have a great ingredient you better have the technique to back it up. With a shitty ingredient you’ll try to mask it with good technique and with great ingredients you need technique to get the most out of it. It can’t be one or the other.
Favorite Food outside of Italian?
Hummus. It’s alarming how much I go through. It’s easy, good for you. Vietnamese cold rolls, I’ll crush like 6 of them. I really enjoy simple food as well like almost burnt bread with tomatoes and olive oil. I always need a vegetable when I eat to manage that protein overload.
How do you unwind and relax?
When I get home I’ll lay on my floor and watch a show, sometimes have a drink, sometimes it’s four drinks poured into 1…LOL Being a restaurant owner and chef you never really turn it off. I find when I relax the most is when I’m with my son watching his soccer game or just spending time with him.
White Wine, not a big red fan but I do appreciate them. Bourbon or whiskey on the rocks. I can’t fake my way through the day being hung-over anymore, there are just too many things that suffer because of it.
Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, and blue cheeses.
Best meal you’ve ever had?
A best meal is generally based on an experience. I had a meal in Sardinia, Italy. It was all fish, no menu and was referred to us by the bed and breakfast owner where we were staying at. When we got there it was ridiculously busy and was the epitome of communal dining. You sit down and they just start bringing out food, there were 6 cold and 6 hot appetizers. Then you get a bowl of fennel with vinegar on it. This fish was swimming an hour ago, it was incredible. Once you’re done they ask you what you’d like to eat? Who needs more food, are you fuckin kidding me. You then choose steamed, grilled or fried fish. We tried a little bit of everything which is literally three of everything. That experience was about the place, meeting everyone, the energy, it was like being at a family party and it carried on 5-6 hours. It was just that meal where everything after this is gonna suck.
Without a doubt the next time your in Parkdale stop by Porzia and experience a fantastic meal!
Social Media Links
Instagram and Twitter basiliopesce and porziaparkdale
A big thanks to Nelson Campana for the photography. You can reach him through firstname.lastname@example.org or instagram @nelcam