An evening with Roberto Martella

(Canscene) — “I hope the Prime Minister won’t revoke my citizenship for accepting this honour,” quipped Toronto restaurateur Roberto Mandela. The occasion was his investiture as a Cavaliere della Repubblica, the Italian Republic’s order of knighthood.

The ceremony, officiated by Italian consul general Emanuele Punzo took place, March 3 at the Toronto Italian Cultural Institute (Istituto Italiano della Cultura) which schedules a number of events each month relating to Italy and Italian Canadians.

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Roberto Martella then took the podium and gave an often humorous talk “So, you want to be Italian..?…” which was packed with anecdotes explaining why his restaurant, Grano, specializes in Italian foods and wines and promotes events celebrating Italian culture.

I have known Roberto since 1980, when he was the young executive director of the fledgling Canadian Italian Business and Professional Association. Desperately trying to keep my weekly, Oggi Canada, alive I called on him to solicit advertising only to find that CIBPA was itself struggling to make ends meet.

Through the years we ran into each other until one day in 1986 I dropped off a friend at Yonge Street south of Eglinton, to find Roberto putting up a sign outside a store announcing Grano, a bakery restaurant he and his wife would would open in a few days.

Grano grew, encompassing neighbouring premises but mindful of that old hospitality industry maxim “location, location, location” and remaining at 2035 Yonge Street, where Grano developed a reputation of providing corporal sustenance of the highest order coupled with stimulating fare for the mind.

A recipient of the Jane Jacobs Award named for the late, great urban affairs theorist and writer, Roberto has created a premises decorated with Italian memorabilia, including a unique indoor courtyard that recreates the atmosphere of a rural Italian trattoria

With Rudyard Griffiths, founder of the Dominion Institute and academic Patrick Luciani, Roberto helped set up the Grano Speakers’ Series which has hosted such internationally known speakers as Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff and Gore Vidal at four events held annually.

It was at Grano that Luminato the festival of the arts, was born in a meeting between Tony Gagliano and David Pecaut who became its co-founders and await their second year of spectacular happenings in June.

Roberto Martella, whose heritage is from a nation that has honoured the arts through the centuries, has been born into a nation that is rapidly becoming conscious of the need for the nourishment of the spirit through artistic excellence. And he is one of those rare beings who lights the way.
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