It’s a sad reality that handfuls of restaurants that don’t survive to celebrate their one-year anniversary. So when one establishment makes it to 25 years, it’s definitely something to be recognized. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic turned our lives upside down, making it in the restaurant business was no easy feat. However, it’s safe to say that legendary restauranteur and all-around powerhouse, Janet Zuccarini, has made it and continues to move the benchmark further along. This year, Janet and her restaurant group, Gusto 54, are celebrating 25 wonderful years of Trattoria Nervosa being open in the city’s Yorkville neighbourhood.
I had the chance to catch up with Janet to not only find out what it feels like to meet this milestone but to also learn what opening a restaurant was like back then for a woman. Safe to say that it was an uphill battle that was definitely won in the end.
Blair Stutz: Huge congratulations on 25 years of Nervosa. How does that feel?
Janet Zuccarini: Thank you! You know, you just realize time passes really quickly and it’s something my parents always used to say. You just cannot believe how fast time goes by. I think the average lifespan of a restaurant after it survives one year is 7 years.
So, I feel like I’m three lifetimes in the restaurant business. You don’t hear about many restaurants that are open for 25 years. So I feel – and also surviving a pandemic – another thing to say is that we keep going and I’m proud and I’m so proud of my team.
BS: On any given day, you see people lined up wanting takeout or a seat on the patio. Besides the COVID pandemic, was there ever a thought that you might not make it to 25 years?
JZ: Oh yeah. In the early days of starting a restaurant, 50% shut down within a year of starting. I started with two partners and I didn’t know them and it was very tough and I was unhappy in this partnership. We bought out one partner immediately but it was the chef and me. And I went blindly into partnership with someone who ended up being abusive and I just wanted to get out of the partnership. I instead ended up buying him out, which was a real turning point for me but I struggled and worked 16 hours a day for four years and it was a very, very tough life.
But I think that anything worthwhile is not easy. I learnt from my hard times how to better run my company. Definitely in the beginning I was like, “this is so hard, I don’t know how long I can do this for.”
BS: And being a woman too, back then there was even more adversity we had to face. What was that like?
JZ: It’s just an industry that’s not in balance. And here I was, I had this male partner and I felt there was this gender disparity that we would have. I was fighting harder to have equal standing with a man.
BS: But here you are; Toronto, LA, a total powerhouse! Was Yorkville always part of the plan? Did you always know you wanted to open in Yorkville?
These two partners that I started out with, it’s kind of a long story, but I ended up walking by the corner of Yorkville & Bellair and what was to be Nervosa was under construction. I walked in and I ended up meeting these two guys and they said, “Hey, why don’t you be our partner?”
And what I thought was that this is a great opportunity because Yorkville at the time only had high-end restaurants. So I thought that we’d have a niche in a high-end neighbourhood to have more of a good value offering in Yorkville. Plus, I said that we have a corner with patio space. Location, location, location! I thought this was an incredible location and the right format of a business.
Two weeks later, I became a partner. I never had it in my head that I would be in the restaurant business. But I didn’t realize then that I was marrying two passions. I had just come from university, I was living in Rome, and I fell in love with cooking for myself and I was studying business. So I ended up marrying two passions. But it fell in my lap.
BS: The best things really do fall in your lap, I find.
JZ: You never know in life and you have to be open to things. I did know that I was open to working for myself. I knew that I had an entrepreneurial spirit, so I was looking for that opportunity to work for myself. So, they asked me and two weeks later, I was in the restaurant business, never having an idea I’d be in the restaurant business before that. I think if you go around life that way, being open and open-minded, then opportunities are floating around everywhere.
BS: Absolutely. What has it been like watching Yorkville change over 25 years?
JZ: Everything changes all around us. Anywhere you can look, you can go anywhere and people will say, “Oh, it wasn’t like it was back in the day.” I’m not like that. I’m always looking forward.
So when I went to Yorkville in 1996, everyone would say, “Oh it’s not the Yorkville of the ’80s.” And then they would say, “it’s not the Yorkville of the ’70s.” I kept hearing stories of Yorkville with people saying, “Yorkville isn’t as good as it was”.
I’ve loved every minute of 25 years to see the changes. It’s developing more, evolving more and it keeps changing. For me, I love it. Even now how Yorkville looks, during the COVID patio season where it’s all one uniformed look and people are so happy walking around. Nervosa has never been busier than right now. Yorkville has always been good to me and I love the changes, I keep looking forward to it.
BS: What was it like seeing the success from the ‘rolling the prices back to the ‘90’s’? That was huge!
JZ: Unfortunately, I couldn’t be there because of COVID and travel, so I was pretty sad to miss my own 25th anniversary of Nervosa. But my team came up with that idea and we just thought it was so much fun.
And we thought we could do takeout that day. And of course, a Margherita pizza on the day of the celebration was $5.95 and we got so inundated with orders for the obvious reason that it was so inexpensive, so we had to shut that down.
BS: I feel like it’s something that you had to be there to experience it.
JZ: Yeah, we had to turn that off, unfortunately. We had lineups all day, a lot of our regulars and a lot of people from our team, from our management team came out and it was a great celebration.
BS: Now I’m sure it’s like choosing a favourite child but do you have a top fave on the Nervosa menu? The Kale Salad perhaps?
JZ: I’ve been told I’m the first person to bring a kale salad to Toronto, so we’re talking about 13 or 14 years ago and nobody had heard of kale. In fact, it went on the menu and then we had to take it off because there weren’t enough orders. People didn’t know what kale was. And then it became our number 1 selling salad.
Before there was the kale salad, Nervosa had a chicken salad. And it was with goat cheese and these sauteed mushrooms and grilled chicken and people were obsessed with that salad. We eventually took that off the menu and I was happy to see that back on the anniversary. People would stop me on the street because they were so upset that I took the salad off and so it was great to see that back that day. So I’ve asked my chef if we can recreate a modern version of that salad that was such a favourite in the ’90s, so we’re bringing that salad back. So I was really happy to see that salad!
BS: Okay going to have to try that! Now it’s no secret that Nervosa is a favourite for celebrities and stars when they’re in town. If you could pick any celebrity to dine in at Nervosa, who would it be?
JZ: Oh my gosh. We had – you know, for me, the queen of all queens and that was Beyonce and Jay Z. I still really feel like there’s nothing better than having Jay Z and Beyonce. And you know, Drake has very much been a regular for years. We love Drake.
Lately, I’ve been obsessed with Dolly Parton. I’m just gonna say it! I don’t know why but I’m in love with her.
BS: She’s been having a huge moment! Dolly needs the kale salad!
JZ: I would love to feed her the kale salad.
Featured Image: Jake Rosenberg