When I moved to Toronto eight years ago, Trattoria Nervosa in Yorkville was the first restaurant I had dinner at. It wasn’t the kind of experience you’d forget easily. The effortless rattle of tonight’s specials. The warm bread basket, accompanied with Sicily’s finest. Matchmaking a different wine with each dish. Punctuating the meal with an espresso. My friends and I stayed until the kitchen closed. We graduated from Pizza Express that night, and started dining like adults.
Years later, it’s an honour to speak with the orchestrator behind it all. Janet Zuccarini is every bit as warm in person as her institutions around the city – the aforementioned Nervosa, Gusto 101, Pai, and the soon-to-open Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen. Behind her warmth, though, is a cucumber-cool steadiness that has served her well, two decades into the most tumultuous industry to work in. Read on for lessons on the many layers of great hospitality, partnerships, and enjoying your success.
You’ve spoken about your father’s incredible influence on your entrepreneurship. What kind of relationship did you two have?
My father was an Italian immigrant. Although he was an older Italian father, with the immigrant mentality and not knowing how to deal with girls—he wasn’t the warmest, or the most loving father growing up, which [changed] in later years. As a kid, he brought me up as the son he never had. He also instilled a work ethic in us, and the same entrepreneurial spirit. He only wanted to work for himself, all his life. I’m the same way. I’m indebted to my father for everything I have today.
Sometimes I feel my upbringing was a little bit on the harder side. As a kid, you’re bound to feel that way, but I’m really thankful for it. His mentality was, ‘you only need two pairs of jeans’. One to wear, while the other was in the wash. And that just didn’t fly when you’re growing up in Forest Hill with your girlfriends, going to camp, surrounded by Lacoste t-shirts.
My father didn’t have a credit card until his sixties, and he always told us: ‘if you don’t have the cash, don’t buy it’. I was very much like that. People would complain about wanting something, and I’d be like, ‘work for it, save the money, and buy it!’ That’s how it works. It’s simple, but I’m amazed at how so many people don’t understand that about money. Credit cards don’t mean you’re entitled to buy something.
Living within your means is definitely a worthwhile lesson. That said, how do you balance that business sense with the risks that are inherent to entrepreneurship?
Well, I’m in the highest risk business in the world. As an entrepreneur, you cannot be risk-averse. I do not mind taking the roll of the dice, I do not mind putting it all on the line, and backing it with everything that I have. If I need to take a second mortgage on my house, so be it. With my first restaurant, I had so many conversations with people who were warning me not to do this. But what did I have to lose? I was just starting out in life. I already had nothing.
No risk, no reward. Your risks should be good risks; you should feel confident about them. But if you need to count on a paycheque, do not be an entrepreneur.
“With my first restaurant, I had so many conversations with people who were warning me not to do this. But what did I have to lose? I was just starting out in life. I already had nothing.”
Is it fair to assume you’re driven by your instincts?
Very. I’m extremely driven by my gut instinct. The older I’ve gotten, the one thing I’ve learned is to always trust what you know inside yourself. Quiet yourself down, and listen to your true voice—not the one that’s your inner child, or the one that’s wounded or afraid—to get all the answers you need in the world.
Food is also something that’s very instinctive in nature: playing to the senses and such. How did you carve a business empire out of your appreciation for food?
I married two passions. I have an entrepreneurial spirit, which I inherited from my father. And I went to Italy, where I fell in love with cooking and food. When you do something you love, you don’t feel like you’ve worked a day in your life. Even when some days are 17 hours long.
What was Italy like?
I had to pinch myself every day when I was in Rome. Riding around in my Vespa, going to my classes—it was a dream come true. Italians put the focus on the quality of life, not what you do for a living. And I’ve [followed] that. I’m very passionate about what I do for a living, but it also doesn’t define me. I’ve never really been stressed at work, and I’ve been in it 20 years. I don’t ever lose my cool. At the end of the day, I make pizza for a living. It’s not that serious.
I want to do a good job, but I also want to spend time with my friends, my family, and I want to travel the world. I want a well-rounded life. Italy taught me la dolce vita—the sweet life. That’s how they live, and I’m so grateful I’ve learned that. It’s the most important life lesson.
When my father was dying in palliative care in 2000, I interviewed him. He was a workaholic, and I asked him, on his deathbed, whether or not it was worth it. He said no. That was when he knew his family and friends, seeing the world was more important. Those two things—living in Italy, and interviewing my father—taught me to live life like there’s no tomorrow.
“I don’t ever lose my cool. At the end of the day, I make pizza for a living. It’s not that serious.”
How does la dolce vita translate into your restaurants?
I always want each customer to feel like they’re walking into an Italian person’s home. In Italy, people were always inviting others into their homes. That’s a feeling embedded into Italian culture, and I wanted to bring that feeling into my restaurants. The Tuscan grill, the fire, the warmth—they all add up to a hearth, a home.
As soon as you have your hand up in the air, we haven’t taken care of you; we need to anticipate every need. When you’re walking up to the building, does the building look inviting and warm? Did the hostess greet me within 60 seconds with a smile? Do I have a drink within five minutes?
A lot of people think you just need to serve good food. Yet to understand all the aspects of hospitality you have to deliver upon, there are so many touchpoints. Without becoming too mechanical or robotic, we also need to put these systems in place that gives you that feeling.
How do you live that philosophy in your current day-to-day?
I always sit down for a hot lunch. So many restauranteurs are like, ‘I didn’t eat today!’ Oh my god. It’s like the shoemaker with the broken-down soles. I create other leaders in my business so I can enjoy my life. I’m a great delegator.
“I always sit down for a hot lunch. So many restauranteurs are like, ‘I didn’t eat today!’ Oh my god. It’s like the shoemaker with the broken-down soles.”
For many entrepreneurs, delegating is their biggest hurdle. How did you learn that?
I believe in people. I hire those who I believe have the talent, the smarts, and a great attitude. And I train well. To run a business properly, you can’t be inside your business as a technician.
I can train every single of my business because I worked every angle of my business. Once you become profitable, you could afford to pay other people to run all those different aspects—and free yourself up to rise above it. That’s the only way you can grow, and see clearly. You can’t see clearly when you’re inside your business. What it needs, which parts deserves attention, and so on. To lead your business, you’ve got to sit on top of it.
“To lead your business, you’ve got to sit on top of it.”
Do you have a litmus test when hiring people?
Likemindedness. Having the same beliefs, the same concerns, the same values. I’m trying to get people who would run their business the Janet Zuccarini way, instead of me having to train them on how I’d see or do things. Battling it out with somebody or try to explain what you’re getting at is such a waste of time. It’s like finding a life partner. Successful relationships are between people who have a lot in common. That’s statistically proven. Why should that be any different in a company?
What would you tell your younger self, opening up her first restaurant 20 years ago?
You need grit to get anywhere. Grit means doing whatever it takes. I look back, and I did whatever it took—moving back in with my parents, saved my money, worked 17 hours a day, never took a holiday. That’s what my business needed at the time. To be successful at what you do, the first determining factor is grit. Don’t ever give up. If you’re going down one at and there’s a block, use another. You can achieve anything you can set your mind to.