WASHINGTON – My youngest daughter – now eight years old – and I have had a tradition for the past two years that we have lived in the Junction area of Toronto. When the rest of the family was away for an afternoon, we went to Vesuvius. We would share a pizza, an order of fried calamari, a Caesar salad. Soak up the balsamic vinegar and olive oil with the bread they would bring to the table. Simple, but excellent – a multi-course meal that was described as super fancy for a child and his father in the afternoon, but a sufficiently comfortable (and affordable) place for such a family trip. Dabbing her mouth with a white towel in the dining room after the first time we did it, she said it was the best meal she had ever had at her favorite restaurant. It became something we did.
It was another on the heap of things our family did that revolved around the Dundas West pizza establishment: hot slices from the take-out window for dining at Vine Avenue Park for afternoon snacks ; meatball sandwiches to bring home late at night; birthday parties and team parties in the dining room, where they could always sit tables for 20 people; pasta there in the evening, large square pizzas to take away for the night. A suitable place for every occasion; the consensual choice which could put an end to each heated debate “where to eat”.
So there were real tears in our house, 500 miles away now, when the owners of Vesuvius this week announced its permanent closure. The family – Ettore (Eddie to his clients) is the only one of the four brothers who founded it still on the left – said that the COVID-19 crisis had sealed the decision to close it.
This vile virus. The lives he claims mostly hurt, of course, a different league from suffering from any other concern. But the way it changes all of our lives and the fear it has inspired also hurt him. And it is slowly, surely, the closure of businesses, some of which – a large number of restaurants, I suppose – will not return, permanently changing neighborhoods. Like Vesuvius. This one stings.
It was not only my youngest daughter’s favorite restaurant, it was also my son’s and my mother’s – all of our family. My wife ate her food when she was growing up in the neighborhood, while the restaurant went up to her dining room and opened a takeout counter under the alcohol ban that lasted at the junction until ‘in the late 1900s.
When we moved to the neighborhood in 2006, while founding our own family, it was one of the only restaurants in what is now a foodie strip, and its offerings became a staple of our diet. The restaurant and the familiar faces of the Pugliese family who ran it were an integral part of a constantly changing neighborhood. The place felt like it had been there forever, part of the landscape, like a mountain or a lake, which would surely be there long after we left.
When the Puglies opened their restaurant in 1957, they named it the New York bakery where they learned to make pizza and introduced the now familiar style to Toronto. It was a good pizza: the pleasantly oily mozzarella, the small, crispy rolls of pepperoni around the edges, the golden crust on the outside and crisp on the bottom. There are too many delicious pizza variations to say that the best, but I don’t know I’ve ever enjoyed more than Vesuvio. (I was not alone: in 1981, a Star a panel of chefs named it the best pizza in town; in 2010, Star food critic Amy Pataki declared her the winner of the Pizza Olympics delivery.) The food was good.
But like any good neighborhood restaurant, it was more than food. It was a place full of memories – for our family and for hundreds or thousands of others – formed over the decades.
We still have some. It was the first place my son decided he thought he was having a good pizza necessary anchovy. It was the place where I watched the Leafs playoff games with the delivery drivers while waiting at the takeout counter. It was the place where my parents and siblings took me to say goodbye the day before we moved to Washington.
And this is the place in Toronto that we have missed more than any other since our move. There is no shortage of good pizzas here, and we have a favorite Italian place near our house, but none of them are this place. None of them is Vesuvius. A week has not passed since we moved here at the end of last summer that his name was not mentioned at one time. When we visited Toronto over Christmas, my wife and the kids picked up slices and ate them in the park – in DecemberWarning. The cold bites into their fingers, but the pizza was hot and you have to do the things you love when you have the chance.
None of us knew then that it would be our last memory of the place. We have many and we are grateful to the Pugliese family. We just thought there would be more.
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