Presenting – Mary Lee from Spiaggia Restaurant – A Hospitality Entrepreneur with a Heart for the Art

One restaurant I have wanted to check out for a long time is Spiaggia Trattoria (“spiaggia” is Italian for “beach) at the eastern end of the Queen Street strip. Local Beach expert Glenn Cochrane had mentioned that the owner, Mary Lee, was an interesting person and recommended that I interview her. To catch her before the busy evening hours at her establishment I met her at 5:30 and we sat down in a quiet corner at the back of the restaurant.

Mary Lee indicated that she and her husband John moved into the Beach in 1989. Before the couple moved to this neighbourhood h they used to live in an apartment at the Sutton Place Hotel. When she noticed my surprise Mary Lee explained that the 19th to the 31st floor of this famous hotel in Toronto were set aside for rent-controlled residential apartments. Even today some of the apartments are still occupied by the original tenants. I had never known that there were private apartments in the Sutton Place Hotel. You never stop learning about your own city…

Prior to becoming restaurant entrepreneurs, Mary Lee was an interior designer while her husband worked as an architect at the Bank of Montreal. Spiaggia was not their first foray into the hospitality ownership; the couple had owned restaurants in Oakville and on St. Clair Avenue in Toronto. In 1990 they bought the building that the current restaurant is located in; it housed five apartments and the small Spiaggia..

Mary Lee and her husband immediately set about renovating the property and when the demolition work started, they found newspapers in the wall dating back to 1902. Throughout the entire renovation process they continued to operate the existing restaurant, and the patrons enjoyed watching the stucco work being performed on the building, right through the front windows.

Today the second floor holds a beautiful apartment – Mary Lee took me briefly upstairs and I saw a spacious apartment with an unusual layout with lots of angles and a gorgeous light-coloured decorating scheme, obviously the results of her interior design talents. She took me out on the rear balcony and mentioned that she can see all the way to Toronto’s City Hall from this location.

The couple spent three years overhauling the building and dealt with the glitches along the way. One local regulation required that they keep the old plumbing intact while they were installing the new pipes. As a result, the building today has two sets of plumbing throughout, of course only the new plumbing is being used.

Mary Lee’s real estate investment and renovation skills as well as her protective sentiments about the neighbourhood became evident when a video rental store across the street was being converted into an adult video store. Concerned about the impact on the neighbourhood, the couple bought the property and turned it into an art gallery. The adult video store relocated further west on Queen Street outside of the Beach neighbourhood.

When her husband passed away in 1998, Mary Lee closed down the art gallery since she did not have enough time to manage both businesses. A graphic design business now occupies the space. Mary Lee mentions that during the difficult time around her husband’s death her loyal restaurant customers took care of her. Their support and the higher workload she was carrying by herself now helped her get through a difficult transition period.

We started talking about Spiaggia and the unique features of this fine dining restaurant. Spiaggia is open seven days a week in the evenings from 5 to 11 pm. It has two sitting areas and the area on the north side of the building can be booked for private meetings. Often this room holds special events for up to 20 people.

The cuisine at Spiaggia includes seven different types of pasta dishes, fresh fish, seafood and veal dishes. Spiaggia is part of Eat Smart! – Ontario’s Healthy Restaurant Program, an exclusive program that awards Ontario restaurants that meet high standards in food safety, nutrition and non-smoking seating. Mary Lee added that guests are able to get customized meals that are prepared right in front of them in the open kitchen. Guests always enjoy healthy, fresh food at Spiaggia.

As we were sitting there Mary Lee told me a couple of humorous stories: in late December she got an out-of-town reservation with a credit card from a prospective restaurant patron in the US. They called a week ahead to reserve a seat for Spiaggia’s New Years Eve dinner event. Mary Lee was wondering what had happened when these customers did not show up. A few days later she got a phone call from a woman in West Virginia who said she was not able to locate Spiaggia’ on Queen Street, but was finally able to find it on Michigan Avenue – in Chicago!

Apparently she had found information about Spiaggia on the Internet and planned to have a nice New Year’s Eve dinner in Chicago, but ended up making the reservation with Spiaggia Trattoria in Toronto!

Even more humorous and unusual is the story behind Mary Lee’s espresso machine. In the 1970s she travelled to Florida with her husband in their Corvette. On the way back home John spotted an unusual object in a shop window in Fort Lauderdale. He made an immediate U-turn and went into the store to inquire about this interesting-looking item.

It turned out that the object was an espresso machine made in Italy, but the 1970’s was an era before fancy coffee concoctions. When Mary Lee’s husband inquired as to what the object was, the man simply responded in a southern drawl “it makes coffee”. John had to have the espresso machine and ended up buying it for $21,000, which 30 years ago was more money than what he had paid for the Corvette.

He simply had to buy this espresso machine, and because there wasn’t enough space in the car for both Mary Lee and the espresso maker, he dropped her off at the airport and drove home with the espresso machine strapped into the passenger seat sticking out of the roof. Mary Lee laughed and said “I am the only broad who has ever been dumped for an espresso machine”. Today the machine is still used to make coffee.

Mary Lee told me about her attachment to the Beach neighbourhood. She said she loves the area and enjoys taking walks on Queen Street or on the Boardwalk. It is a neighbourhood with a very high quality of life, one of those Toronto neighbourhoods that even have a busy street life on Sundays. She chuckled when she mentioned a popular local saying: “you can’t live in this neighbourhood unless you have a dog or a stroller.” The Beach is indeed very popular with dog owners and young families.

Unfortunately international events have had an impact on the Beach. The restaurant owners in the Beach and Toronto in general have really been affected by the slow-down of American tourism in Toronto. In 2003 Toronto was hit by the SARS crisis and more recently travel between Canada and the US has become more difficult due to passport requirements and terrorism prevention measures. Mary Lee has noticed a significant decrease in American customers over the last few years. In addition, the popularity of the Beach as an entertainment area has raised rents for many merchants which makes doing business in this neighbourhood more difficult. Mary Lee indicated that she is fortunate since she owns Spiaggia’s building.

MaryLee explained that she has about 14 full-time and part-time staff members working at Spiaggia. Her chef Jacobo Guerra is originally from Ecuador and has been in Canada since 1979. He started in the hospitality industry 16 years ago after completing a chef’s course at George Brown College. In addition to his culinary education Jacobo also has a talent for arts and took a fine art program at the Ontario College of Arts. Jacobo’s assistant Victor hails from India and came to Canada in 2001. He has been working at Spiaggia for almost three years now and says he has learned everything he knows from the expert, Jacobo.

Art is a common theme at Spiaggia: Brittany Ross works part-time as a waitress at the restaurant and she owns her own photography and web design business. (She designed the Spiagga website.) During my visit I also had a chance to sit down and chat with John Dowding, a renowned local photographer and photography teacher, who regularly participates in the Beach Studio Tour. John has an interesting event coming up in early February: a photo tour to Havana, he and I were going to arrange a one-on-one interview so I would have a chance to learn more about one of the many artists in the Beach.

John indicated that Mary Lee is an active sponsor of the Beach Studio Tour and is always available to help if the artists need something. He commented that over the years he has enjoyed a great friendship with Mary Lee and loves to come here for a good dinner.

After my interview with Mary Lee and my conversation with John Dowding I had a chance to sit down and sample some of Spiaggia’s cuisine myself. Spiaggia’s menu is extensive with many mouthwatering choices, and a prix-fix menu including a starter, a main course and a dessert, is available at the reasonable price of $25.95 .

I decided to go for the prix fix menu and had a Caesar salad to start followed by an extremely tasty “Vitello alla Balsamic” – a delicious arrangement of grilled veal, mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes, with a leeks balsamic Dijon sauce and garlic butter capellini on the side. I am not usually much of a meat eater, but the tender veal accompanied by an interesting array of vegetable flavours was scrumptious. My dinner partner had the Gorgonzola Carbonara and commented that it was fabulous as well. After a delicous tiramisu, my favourite Italian dessert, Mary Lee treated us to a sampling of the famous chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce. All I can say I was glad I had finally made the trek down to discover Trattoria Spiaggia.

And I had a chance to meet Mary Lee, a gifted interior designer, a restaurant owner committed to serving high quality fresh and healthy food and an entrepreneur with a big heart for the arts…