By Rebecca Dumais
Chef Claudio Aprile has never been one to simply carry over or put together a meal based on someone else’s list of ingredients, quantities or methods, but when he was approached to reimagine the menu at Di Mario’s Italian Trattoria by restaurant owner, entrepreneur and CEO of Paramount Foods Mohamed Fakih, the fit couldn’t have been more ‘fantastico.’
Aprile quickly settled into the role of Culinary Director at Di Mario’s in December 2022, an intimate eatery located in the heart of Downtown Burlington, one that’s been a culinary favourite of the community for over two decades.
The business connection with Fakih, who also owns Italian mainstay Via Allegro in Etobicoke, happened organically, both relying on getting to know one another the old-fashioned way rather than through social media message exchanges. “We started to hang out, exploring Toronto, going to restaurants and breaking bread together, getting to know what type of people we each are. It built from there,” he says.
While excited to jump in feet first, renewing an established restaurant required some forethought and acquiring an understanding of the community. Aprile wanted to first pay attention to the guests, what their needs were, and what the restaurant meant to them. “A lot of (the approach) was very traditional; more about going to someone’s table and introducing myself and understanding what the restaurant meant to them,” he says. “This has been a very interesting experience because in the past I’ve always focused on creating something brand new, whether it was techniques, ideas, flavours – trying to reveal new things to my guests.”
In this case, a level of respect was required for what previous owner Nicky Leonelli had built – nearly 20 years of hard work. “She developed a very close relationship with Burlington. She did an amazing job at that,” he acknowledges. “I think her level of hospitality is exceptional and I paid close attention and learned from that.”
In the past, Aprile’s never been particularly interested in taking something over. “It was never something I found stimulating,” he admits. “This time it was different. I’ve learned so much from Mohamed. He’s a very skilled entrepreneur with a deep pool of knowledge. While the restaurant’s interior has changed, with a complete renovation, frequent visitors to Di Mario’s will still notice many of the front-of-the-house team has remained. Cheyenne, “one of the great shining stars of the kitchen” has been working there for almost 10 years. Of course, Aprile notes that the entire kitchen staff is fantastic, but he’s taken Cheyenne under his wing and acts as a mentor. “He’s evolving into a dynamic sous chef. Those to me are the jewels – when you find (people) like that.”
It’s been a team-building exercise. “I think we’ve done a great job with that.”
Often one of the mistakes that a lot of business-minded people make in the hospitality industry, according to Aprile, is that they don’t recognize how important it is to keep staff. “This thing about cleaning house and going into a business and overhauling, I think is a mistake. We do think there’s a lot of value and importance (there).”
Sure, it’s a business, but it also has a heart, which is kept alive in large part by those very people already present. “Acting in a respectful way, I think, is very important. It’s been about trust – building trust with your team.”
Aprile knows he’s fortunate to have great front- and back-of-house staff – including the addition of Brooke as general manager. “She’s incredible. Driven, and very focused.”
The menu has evolved with Aprile’s interpretations yet also retains its rustic Italian roots.
It’s comprised of many of the ‘greatest hits’ in Italian food, which were deconstructed and rebuilt. “The food is very traditional, light, fresh. We do follow the seasons. It’s simple. That’s the thing. What we’re doing is not complicated at all. It’s my interpretation of Italian cuisine. I love food. I love cooking. I’ve been doing it for 40 years and I still, without a doubt, get very excited about new ideas and launching a new dish or a reimagined menu, building a team or training a new team. I enjoy that,” he says. “I did pay close attention to tradition so I haven’t strayed too far away from Italian food culture – instead I embraced it. We’ve introduced a lot of new dishes, and they’ve been received really well.”
The best seat in the house is the new chef’s table tasting experience. Seat yourself right beside the kitchen while you and a handful of guests enjoy a freestyle menu. “It’s a very unpredictable menu – you never know what you’re going to get,” Aprile says, adding that certain dishes may even have other cultural influences, not necessarily Italian. “It’s a great opportunity for the kitchen to experiment, come up with new ideas and challenge themselves. Those dinners have become very popular.” The experience is best enjoyed by two to six people and must be booked ahead.
Sunday Brunch was also introduced recently, and Aprile hints that soon there may be a beautiful Italian family-style supper series on Sundays.
Di Mario’s wine list is so extensive and so carefully honed that it earned the restaurant a 2023 Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, which is a leading authority on the world’s best wine lists. “The wine list is even more extensive than it was. We have our master sommelier from Via Allegro, Wendy, she’s phenomenal,” he says. “Wendy has such a deep wealth of knowledge. You can ask her anything about wine and she’ll have an answer for you.”
Signature cocktails are general manager Brooke’s creation. Even when it comes to beverages, Di Mario’s is focused on offering classic flavours with a contemporary presentation. She has taken a similar approach to cocktails as Aprile has taken to the food.
Paying close attention to the established clientele and hearing what they had to say was important in the new iteration of a community favourite. “They’re a big part of the development and the evolution of the restaurant. Burlington is such a small community. It’s amazing,” He’s also taken note that Burlingtonians love food. “It’s a small neighbourhood but it’s very cosmopolitan in many ways and I see a lot of changes happening in the downtown core. I think there’s a very big appetite for creativity and the commute from Burlington to Toronto to go to a restaurant is a little bit played out.”
Luckily for us, we don’t have to do that anymore.