Zaza: Where Italy embraces Toronto
The first time I met Raffaele Bettalico he greeted me with Ciao Bella and began talking, singing and dancing all at once. And just like that, in song-song fashion and overflowing enthusiasm, I was invited to the grand opening of Zaza Espresso Bar and Paninoteca. I had to ask myself, who is this guy and is he always this high on life? I stopped a passer-by on my way out of the café, and to my suprise, he knew Raffaele: “Yeah, that’s Raffaele allright. Everyone here knows him. It’s always a party here.”
August 4th: Grand opening day. A beaming Raffaele welcomes guests with a warm hug or traditional, cheek-to-cheek kiss. He seems to know everyone by name and face and vice-versa. A photographic memory. But more than a sharp ability to recall details, Raffaele has a genuine love for people, whom he regards as more than an extension of his business. “People that come here, [I] don’t like to call them customer. They support me, they smile me, they my friend.” And that sense of camaraderie is what brought Zaza to Toronto.
Raffaele met partner Carmen Costantino in Italy. Beyond friendship, they found that their personalities gelled well together. Interlocking his hands, Raffaele explains: “We fit like gloves. We are first friends then business.” Their strong bond and entrepreneurial spirit resulted in three locations: the “mother location” in Etobicoke, Vaughn, Yorkville and a fourth upcoming in Bloor West Village. The strength of their partnership translates to the espresso and food as well.
The Paninoteca is an extension to the pre-existing Zaza Espresso Bar, where espresso and gelato are served in an open concept café, outdoors. At the Paninoteca, espresso can be paired with fresh salads and panini sandwiches, cookies, biscottis, even made in-house Tiramisu. Raffaele’s philosophy on food is just as bona fide Italian as himself: “[We] offer always fresh, real product from my country. Keep always the real taste.”
True to his culinary approach, in-house, Italian Chef Chiara makes the salads and panino sandwiches, while the cookies and biscottis are prepared by a local Nonna – old lady or grandmother.
The gelato is sourced from Salvatore, whom according to Raffaele is “the first guy that brought Italian gelato to Toronto, most famous.”
Even the meats and cheeses topped in the regionally-inspired named panini sandwiches hail from Italy. I am offered a panino (panini sandwich), layered with tomato and bocchini mozzarella slices and lightly seasoned with basil, oregano, salt, pepper and olive oil. Delicately toasted to a pleasant crunch, the panino is light yet wholesome and refreshing. It bursts with the health, flavour and freshness of homemade food done café style. Bellissimo!
The foam coffee is equally authentic. Full bodied with a light, acidic aftertaste and smooth finish, it provides just the right amount of hit for taste. Think java done Armani. Roasted in Naples, these Arabica beans are delivered to Toronto, where barista Michele serves it to your liking as an espresso, coffee, cappuccino, latte or Raffaele’s own creation, Latte Multistrato.
The latter is layer-upon-layer of espresso and milk. Indulge in the two one at a time or mix and drink as a latte. It’s really your liberty java of choice. No matter how you like your black, attention to detail goes into every cup; single, double or triple shot.
With his right pinky raised in the air to demonstrate how espresso was enjoyed in olden Italy, Raffaele says, “My main thing to introduce the culture and world of espresso. How you can taste flavour of espresso, how to drink espresso. If you don’t take care of particular, espresso don’t come good.”
But more than authentic espresso and food, Zaza is a place where a community of friendship is the celebrated brew. “[It's] always my mission to bring out my culture of my country,” says Raffaele. “I want to bring something bigger than espresso. [You come here with friends] you talk about soccer, art, culture. The friends say you pay [this time], I pay [next time] and they come back.” True to its name, which literally means “a person that’s hyper”, the atmosphere at Zaza is upbeat and positive.
It’s a place where everyone will come to know your name. And ladies, you’ll feel beautiful too. You are greeted bella when you enter and Ciao Bella when you leave. “Business is the mirror of your soul. You give to the location, to the people, the package is Zaza,” says Raffaele. And as I am bid farewell by Raffaele in true Zaza fashion, I know this marks many goodbyes that will always start with a warm and genuine hello, with perhaps some song and dance too.
The downtown Zaza Espresso Bar and Paninoteca is located at 75 Yorkville Avenue. It is open Mon-Sat from 8 AM-12 AM and Sunday from 10 AM-11 PM.