75 Yorkville Avenue
When we last talked to Chef Andrea Nicholson back in late November, she was at the helm of a sinking ship. Despite her best efforts at creating an accessible, locally-sourced menu of classic Canadiana with a fine dining twist, 35 Elm Street, the restaurant where she worked as the executive chef, was failing. In fact, only days after we ran a profile on Nicholson and her work at 35 Elm, the place was abruptly shuttered.
“We were told while we were prepping for dinner service,” the chef remembers. “It was such a slap in the face. It breaks my heart.”
Nicholson knew that things were not going smoothly at 35 Elm, and made her own efforts to get the restaurant name out there, taking part in events such as Eat to the Beat and the Gourmet Food and Wine Expo, where we were first intrigued by her in-house duck prosciutto. But even her enthusiasm and fabulous menu couldn’t save the place.
Like many in the hospitality industry, she found herself unemployed, right before Christmas. She was out of work for three months, filling her time by teaching butchery courses at Humber College and putting together a business plan to open her own restaurant.
“After Elm, when I was sort of defeated, I said the next thing is my own place,” Nicholson reveals. “We looked at spaces, and I contacted buildings, and I made a business plan, and I had a menu ready, and I had the idea… and then life got in the way, and I had somebody tell me that I didn’t have strong enough financial backing. The space that I wanted disappeared.”
Life has a way of giving us what we need when we most need it, though, and when Nicholson met Janet Zuccarini, owner of Trattoria Nervosa in Yorkville, it gave Nicholson opportunities on two levels – to come in to the existing restaurant and clean up a menu that was tired and uninspiring (something she is exceptionally good at) and the promise of a potential new space to treat as her own.
When I originally interviewed Nicholson back in November, one of her issues with 35 Elm was that it had gotten the reputation as a pizza place (mostly because of the massive pizza oven left behind from the former business, an Il Fornello franchise). At that time, the chef really wanted to be able to use and explore her vast experience in the fine dining realm, but when I meet with her at Nervosa, she’s raving about pizza. And she looks happier than I’ve ever seen her.
“I really like the fact that I am able to do a lot of things,” Nicholson enthuses. “I have an Italian [cooking] background – I trained and worked at Via Allegro, and staged in Sorrento – and Italian food is really simplistic. The ingredients are very fresh and local. Coming here, I wanted to try part of a newer approach to Italian food, so I had that in mind.”
“It’s funny that I’m doing pizzas now and before I wasn’t into it. But the difference before is that we were supposed to be a Canadian restaurant. I can do pizzas here, we’re in a trattoria, like in Italy.”
That approach is what convinced own Zuccarini to bring Nicholson on board and allow the chef to take a red pen to the existing menu and cut it down by almost half. “[Janet] herself wasn’t that overwhelmed with what they were doing here – it was time for a change,” Nicholson explains. “She went through a long process of chef hunting and nobody really inspired her, so when I came in, I just said, ‘let’s do new Italian’. I can’t say that I’m going to do authentic Italian food because I’m not Italian.”
Despite that, Nicholson took a hard line, ditching anything on the menu that wasn’t authentic, fresh and made in-house.
The edited menu offers a pared-down yet comprehensive card with a focus on fresh ingredients. After eating the insalate di polpo, slow braised and grilled octopus with red onions and candied olive tapenade, I am ready to swear my utmost love and devotion to Nicholson. Other dishes she brings for me to try, including the fusilli lunghi and meatballs and one of Nervosa’s signature pizzas, are perfect in their simplicity. Even the beautiful organic olive oil from Zucarrini’s family estate in Abruzzi screams fresh and authentic. Yet the changes were hard fought.
“The number one seller was a penne dish in a cream sauce, with chicken and spinach. When I came here, I thought, I’ve had this at East Side Mario’s; I’ve had this at Jack Astors. It was just reduced cream, garlic and spinach.” Nicholson fought hard to get the staff to try and accept her version of the dish, made with ricotta and walnut. “So, we did a taste-testing with five staff and I won at the end of the day. Thank God I won because I said I’m going to have a really hard time serving [the original] as our own.”
But while staff have been accepting of the changes, some die-hard customers have not.
“I didn’t think we’d get so much backlash over a Caesar salad,” admits Nicholson. The previous version had been made with bottled dressing and bagged croutons. When Nicholson revised the dish to be made with romaine hearts, eggless dressing, anchovies, fried caperberries, parmigiano reggiano and panchetta (a fresher, healthier version of the dish) the regulars were unimpressed. “People were like, what is this?” the chef remembers. “We had to take the stand of, ‘well, don’t order it anymore; here are six other salad options you can choose from’.”
Of course, Yorkville is not known as a fine dining mecca, and after 13 years in business, Nervosa must walk a fine line between serving great innovative food and keeping the regulars happy. The trattoria has a real old-world Italian feel, seating about 120 over two floors and the patio, with comfortable yet professional service, and regulars demanding specific tables every Saturday night. It’s the kind of place where it would be easy to spend an afternoon, leisurely drinking wine or espresso; yet on a recent busy Saturday, Nicholson reveals the place did over 500 covers.
And while the chef has revised the menu to strike that balance between old and new, her enthusiasm peaks as she talks about Zuccarini’s latest plan – a new restaurant at King and Portland.
Living in that area herself, she points out the dearth of casual, yet reasonably-priced sit-down places with decent food. “There’s no place that I can go and eat, 7 days a week. What I have in mind is a place where I would go and eat, where I could afford to eat every day and there’s enough variety and creativity.”
Nicholson explains that they’re looking at a pizza-oriented business. They already have two Naples-certified pizzaiolos on staff (Trattoria Nervosa is one of only a handful of Toronto restaurants certified by the Associazione Pizziuoli Napoletani to make authentic Neapolitan pizza) and with no decent Italian restaurants in the area, they figure that the neighbourhood could use something fresh and new.
“I already have the menu in my head,” Nicholson laughs. “A friend who works for Garland is helping to design the kitchen. I’m really excited; it will be different than here.”
“I’m sort of limited here,” she says, gesturing to Nervosa’s tiny kitchen and prep area. “A new space will be invigorating.”
When I ran into Nicholson this past weekend at the 1000 Tastes of Toronto event, she delightedly confirmed that the space at King and Portland had been secured and work was already starting on the new as-yet-unnamed restaurant.
“Sometimes things happen for a reason,” she mused, reflecting on the past six months of her career. Nicholson may not have wanted to be making pizza at 35 Elm, but at Trattoria Nervosa, and indeed, when the new restaurant opens on the edge of clubland, pizza might just be the thing that puts her name on the lips of Toronto food lovers.
Knowing Nicholson, her plan to give Terroni and Pizza Libretto a run for their money isn’t just an idle threat. This is the lady who is going to make us all think of pizza with renewed awe and respect.